When it comes to talking about and understanding how the body works, sometimes using a simple analogy can help. This is especially true when we look at the intricate choreography of hormones.
Let’s try this to get a handle on our subject of the day – H is for the HPA axis.
Essentially the HPA axis adjusts and regulates the amount of cortisol the body needs when under stressed or not-so-stressed conditions. It’s our central stress response system.
Think about your body as a house.
If the hypothalamus is the thermostat, then the pituitary gland is the relay switch and the adrenals (where cortisol is made) is the furnace.
It goes like this: temperature (cortisol) drops. The hypothalamus senses this and sends a chemical signal to the pituitary which then switches on another messenger hormone called ACTH (adrenal corticotropic hormone) to tell the adrenals it is time to turn up the heat (release some cortisol).
How do we regulate or disregulate cortisol?
Carrying on with the house analogy, when it’s hot enough in your house (or when you have enough cortisol for the action your body needs), a new chemical signal is sent back to the thermostat to turn off. This is known as a negative feedback loop.
I love this little 2-minute neuroscience clip that succinctly explains how the HPA Axis works ‘way better than I can!
Pretty cool, right? Our bodies are a miracle when all is working in harmony. Which is the case in healthy, low-stress individuals. But when cortisol and other stress hormones are chronically overproduced, the HPA axis eventually becomes desensitized to the negative feedback telling it to “calm down”, leading to chronic stress on the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands.
And just like when your thermostat stops working in your house, all of a sudden it becomes uncomfortable and sometimes impossible to enjoy living there.
What disrupts the HPA Axis?
Our bodies are made to be super resilient. We can rise to the challenge when we need to jump into action and meet a deadline, GSD (get sh#t done!), make a life decisions, handle the unexpected and sometimes even run for our lives to escape a dangerous situation.
Stress comes in many forms – emotional, physical, psycho-social, mental, and may be exacerbated by poor diet, lack of sleep, injuries or illnesses, prescription drugs. Even a happy change in our personal or professional circumstance – like getting a new job or buying a new home or starting a new relationship, can cause the HPA axis and its feedback loop to falter.
And certainly when our bodies are constantly bombarded with (perceived) crisis after crisis, when we don’t take time to restore our equilibrium and to feed our physical and emotional stores with the right nutrients and lifestyle initiatives, the eventuality is exhaustion and burn-out and a condition known as HPA-d or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal disregulation.
Conditions relations to HPA-d
When your hormones have reached the point where they are spiralling out of control, a whole lot can go wrong. Because remember – hormones are the chemical messengers in your body and pretty well every function is driven by the endocrine system’s need to try to get the body to homeostasis. Because with every action…. there is an alternate reaction.
Here’s just a partial list of signs and symptoms related to HPA-d:
- Light-headed or dizzy when moving from laying to standing
- Low blood pressure
- Increased allergy/asthma symptoms
- Brain fog, forgetfulness all the time
- Sugar or salt cravings
- Increased belly fat
- Feeling unrested when waking up – even with adequate sleep
- Exhausted by mid-morning
- Need caffeine, sugar, energy drinks to get through the day
- Feeling ‘tired and wired’ – unable to wind down at night (you might get a second wind)
- Decreased ability to handle emotions, stress, pressure
- Low libido
- Cold hands and feet
- Hair loss, weak nails
- Blurred vision
- Afternoon headaches
- Difficulty losing weight
- Thyroid imbalances
- Insulin resistance
- Heart palpitations
- Slow to no weight loss or weight gain
Well, that sounds scary and awful, doesn’t it? And as someone who has experienced this (yep, nutritionists also lose their way sometimes and end up out of balance and out of sorts), I am here to tell you it’s no joke.
You may not have all these symptoms – but if you are experiencing a number of them and just feeling like something is ‘not right’, it may bear a conversation with your trusted health and wellness team. You do not have to suffer in silence nor do you have to put up with the response that these symptoms are ‘all in your head’.
HPA-d is ‘fixable’ although it takes time, perseverance and many steps (and mis-steps) to get back to balance. I can break down the pathway into 4 buckets that must be addressed:
Sleep: in a healthy balanced person, cortisol is naturally lowest between 10pm and 2am, the time when we need to be resting, sleeping, rejuvenating. That means off our devices (the blue electronic light definitely messes with the pituitary signalling), not working at our desks or running around trying to knock off every task on our to-do lists. It also means that we should not be stressing our digestive systems by eating too much (ie: a giant dinner or evening stress snacking), or too late. Ideally you should be done eating at least 3 hours before bed.
Create a wind down ritual at least 45 minutes before bed. Make a list of stuff to take care of the next day so you brain isn’t ‘squirrelling’ overnight with all the details. Have a bath or shower with some aromatherapy to help you let go and metaphorically wash away the cares of the day. Journal if that makes you feel good. Write a few gratitude notes about your day. Consider taking melatonin or other natural supplements to assist with your relaxation and hormone balancing. Listen to some soothing music or an audiobook or podcast (no serial murders, ok!) or read a few pages of a book. Make your bedroom cool, dark and if possible, ensure you have space in bed. If your partner (or kids or pet) takes up too much room in the bed – get a bigger bed! Seriously, it is an investment in good health to have space to spread out as you rest.
Lack of sleep is directly linked to weight and disease issues including diabetes, insulin resistance, mood disorders, cardiovascular diseases and many brain health concerns like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. No matter how well you think you do on 4-6 hours a night, an adult body and brain needs at least 7-9 hours – consistently – to be healthy.
De-stress: rest – and creating space in your life to be able to rest – is critical to de-stressing but there’s more. Deep diaphragmatic breathing – like yoga breathing or belly breathing that you see babies do so effortlessly – are proven methods to lower cortisol. Same as shinrin-yoku – the Japanese art of forest bathing. There are scads of studies now that show that just 30-40 minutes in nature can demonstrably show a reduction of salivary cortisol biomarkers. I know it’s sometimes tough to get out into a forest when you live in the urban jungle but parks, ravines, waterfronts and in a pinch – cemeteries – can all provide the exposure to trees and nature. Don’t spend time on your devices while in nature, use your senses and soak up the healing sights, sounds, aromas.
In addition, if you’ve been following me for any time at all you know I am a massive fan of meditation. Now before you say: “I’ve tried it and I am just not good at it. My mind is too active”, let me remind you – that is the issue and that is why it’s called a meditation PRACTICE. Because you have to do it over and over and over again to get proficient at it.
Look – it’s like building any skill. Piano, baseball, knitting, landscape painting….. you’re not perfect the first time out of the gate, right? But little by little you improve and reap the benefits.
What are those benefits? Anything and everything from reduction and control of anxiety, to lengthening your attention span, to helping overcome addictions, to promoting emotional health to reducing age-related memory loss.
Give yourself 30 days of meditating before giving up. Start with 2 minutes once a day and work up. It took me months to get to 10, 15, then 20, then 30 minutes. Then twice a day. But I can say without a shadow of a doubt – it helped solve my sleep, anxiety, anger, and resentment issues. And maybe a few more I was simply unaware of.
Just start. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Sit in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. You may prefer silence or music later on, but begin with some support via guided meditations to get you rolling and give you a framework for getting out of your head. There are lots of apps that are free to try for a few days until you find the rhythm or the voice you love: Calm, Headspace, 10% Happier, Omvana….. and probably many other. I like 10% Happier but many of my clients prefer Calm or Headspace. It really is what speaks to you.
Truthbomb: I do not know a single person (many who are self-professed Type A’s) who committed to doing the work for at least 30 days who says their lives have not been enriched immeasurably through meditation. This sh#t works – so stop saying you can’t do it – when in fact what you are meaning is you won’t do it.
Inflammation: chronically elevated inflammation can confuse your HPA axis. Where does inflammation originate? Food sensitivities or hidden allergies. Or simply a poor diet that includes a lot of ultra-processed and pro-inflammatory foods like sugar, deep fried whatevers, refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats like an overabundance of omega 6s, trans, and saturated fats, gluten, casein, and artificial sweeteners like aspartame. And alcohol.
Start with switching up your diet. Focus on whole foods with an emphasis on plants, lean proteins especially fish, whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, oats, barley, buckwheat and healthy fats like avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil. Choose organic when you can – the fewer chemicals your body has to process, the less stress it is under, the less chance of inflammation.
Avoid over-exercising: moving your body every day, staying strong and bendy enough to take care of daily chores and enjoy leisure activities is a good thing. But over-exercising and not giving your body a chance for proper recovery is a one-way ticket to stress and inflammation. And HPA dysregulation.
There is a big difference in progressing in the sport or the activity you are pursuing and pushing your body – and your endocrine system – beyond its healthy and safe level. Especially for individuals who are striving to lose weight, there is a tendency to believe that more is better, harder is the only way to burn off calories, and doing more is going to get you to your goal faster. Nothing could be farther from the truth – no matter what your PT or gym buddies tell you.
Exercise raises cortisol. If you are already in an unbalanced state, the last thing you need is to produce more cortisol. When your body is in a stressed out state, there is no way it’s first priority is to burn fat. It is to survive. And surviving (in the hormonal sense) is to hold onto calories for the future just in case the apocalypse comes.
Remember, raised cortisol also stimulates increases in blood glucose which then increases the release of insulin. Insulin is a fat storage hormone. Again, all about survival. So you can see where I am going with this. Overtraining is not going to solve anything.
Does this mean you can’t or should not stay active? Nope. But there are a few things to keep in mind:
- You cannot outrun or out-train your fork. If you are working to reduce your weight, what you eat is still more important than how hard you work out. And it’s better for your hormones.
- Your body needs adequate time to recover. Rest days between gym days, low impact cross-training between marathon training, restorative yoga or simply taking days off to help your parasympathetic nervous system calm down are all necessary. Sometimes, stopping the gym workouts or competitive sports altogether for a short period of time is the only way to give your HPA axis an opportunity to rebalance.
- Taking time away from your ‘hard core’ exercise routine does not make you weak or lazy or unworthy. And ‘for now’ does not have to mean ‘forever’.
- Health builds from the inside out and the endocrine system plays a large role in your overall health. If you are not paying attention to what’s happening with your hormones, no number of reps or kilometres on the treadmill will help. And it may hurt.
Lots to take in on this one, right? But don’t despair. My advice is this: if you are experiencing symptoms described in this post, seek help from a trusted health professional. There are several ways to measure and test hormone levels – like cortisol – although often allopathic medical practitioners choose not to do these or the conventional ranges for these hormones are so wide that you may be told you are ‘normal’ and that nothing is wrong. If you are not feeling yourself, you may need to seek the support of a natural health practitioner.