By Sunn Mixon
We all know that high levels of stress aren’t good for us; but why exactly is this? Well, to fully understand the why, we have to understand how the stress response system works.
The stress response is created by the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal, glands,also known as the HPA Axis, which is a key component in our sympathetic nervous system, our fight or flight response. and is one of the oldest systems in the body.
The main purpose of this connection is to keep us safe, specifically during acute stress or danger. During paleolithic times, this kept us safe from bears, saber-toothed tigers, and even other people.
Let’s break down the flight or fight response: it starts in the amygdala, the small part of our brain that acts as our surveillance system. It scans for anything that could be a danger such as that old tiger our ancestors faced. This works for dangers lurking in the outside world as well as for internal threats within our own body, such as pain or microbial pathogens. When the amygdala senses any threat, it signals the hypothalamus, which sends chemical mediators to the pituitary gland. A message is then sent from the pituitary gland to the adrenal glands that sit on top of our kidneys, which then release the hormones adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol so that we can flee or fight.
This system is essential for survival and works great when it comes to acute stress, but it hasn’t quite caught up with our own evolution within today’s society. Currently, there is an evolutionary mismatch between what our bodies are evolved to do and what is actually going on in our life. This results in a multi-system overload from the allostatic load, or wear and tear on the body, which inhibits the ability of the body to adapt to change, challenge, and stress.
Nowadays, when we think of stress, we think of mental stress such as the deadline you have for work, the fight you had with a family member, that tough conversation you have to have with a friend, etc. Although mental stress has a very large impact on our body system, it isn’t the only kind of stress that we are exposed to. Other forms of stress include emotional stress, such as grief, despair, or anxiety; physical stressors such as infections, diseases, or injuries; environmental stressors such as volatile organic compounds or VOCs, BPAs in plastics, synthetic fragrances and chemicals in body-care products, pesticides, preservatives and fillers in our food, and more. All these stressors make our bodies react as if we were constantly being stalked by that bear our ancestors faced.
In today’s society, our fight or flight system is almost always online because of the constant bombardment of different stressors. Work, traffic, family, news, toxic exposures, and so much more, causing our cortisol to always be elevated, and thus so is our blood sugar and blood pressure.
If you think of your system as a cup, and when it is already full of the previously mentioned stressors, the smallest thing can make it overflow. Or in other words, it is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Over time, due to all of these stressors, our body becomes overloaded with cortisol. This is a stress hormone that also releases sugar into our bloodstream and decreases insulin production, which allows you t have the energy you need to flee or fight the danger. Over time, this cascade can create insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease.
When our bodies are in the stress response state, they are too concerned with the threat at hand, whether it’s a real bear, or being late for work, that they stop paying attention to other systems that are not essential for fighting or fleeing from the situation. This causes these non-essential systems to become downregulated[i].
Because a crisis is not the optimal time to have a child, we also stop producing reproductive hormones, leading to hormonal imbalances that can cause polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, weight gain, and severe PMS among others.
Metabolism isn’t as important either, so our thyroid stops producing appropriate hormones, so we can develop hypothyroidism which causes gain weight and exhaustion. We don’t have time to digest our lunch, so or stomach stops creating stomach acid making it hard for us to digest food, causing reflux, diarrhea, constipation, nutrition deficiencies, gut dysbiosis, and other disorders. Even our sleep cycles get out of whack with so much cortisol in our system, meaning we can’t sleep even though we are exhausted.
This unbearable state is called HPA Axis Dysregulation with overdrive. When our bodies are in this state for too long, we cannot keep up with it, so our body pulls the emergency brake on the cortisol; and we reach adrenal fatigue, commonly known as burnout. However, adrenal fatigue is not an accurate description. The adrenal glands are not fatigued, they simply become downregulated as a protective mechanism since they are in charge of creating cortisol. This then leads to HPA Axis Dysregulation with Exhaustion.
When cortisol is downregulated, it causes low blood sugar, making us feel shaky and uneasy. Blood pressure can drop (hypotension), causing us to feel dizzy and lethargic. All of our other systems are still trying to catch up so were experiencing fatigue, anxiety, digestive issues, insomnia, etc.
While this can all seem overwhelming and quite terrifying, the good news is we have the knowledge to be able to stop and even reverse the cycle! The first step to getting out of HPA Axis Dysregulation is to remove some of the stressors from your cup. You cannot heal disease without also addressing stress; doing so is like trying to put out a fire by pouring both water and gasoline on it. By addressing the multiple forms of stress, we can reset the HPA axis, making it possible to heal the body, which is exactly what we do in all of our programs here at Nuuaria!
[i] Medical Definition of downregulation: the process of reducing or suppressing a response to a stimulus specifically: reduction in a cellular response to a molecule (such as insulin) due to a decrease in the number of receptors on the cell surface.