Your Brain on Stress
Do you ever feel anxious and emotional? Maybe your energy level is low, your digestive system is sluggish, you tend to gain weight easily but have difficulty shedding the pounds; maybe you feel that you tend to get sick often and your immune system is not functioning at optimum; maybe no matter what you do, you find that you don't sleep well, and for women, maybe you feel like your hormones are completely out of whack! If some or all of this describes what you are feeling, you could be experiencing dysregulation of your HPA axis.
The HPA axis, or the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, is a complex feedback mechanism of the neuro-endocrine (nerve and hormonal) system in the body. The Hypothalamus and Pituitary are organs within the brain that facilitate the production and release of many different types of hormones. The Adrenals are organs that sit on top of the kidneys, and are also responsible for the production of many important hormones, including reproductive hormones, stress hormones, and certain metabolic hormones.
These three organs and their interactions with each other together regulate the body's response to stress factors. Irregularities of the HPA axis often lead to problems with the body's immune system, digestion, mood, and even sexual/reproductive health.
Let’s take a look at what happens physically when stress affects the HPA axis. Stress triggers the hypothalamus to release corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), which then stimulates the pituitary to release adrenocorticotropic hormones, which are hormones that stimulate the adrenal cortex to produce the stress hormone cortisol. After a certain amount of cortisol is detected in the blood, theoretically there is a negative feedback loop that tells the hypothalamus to stop releasing CRF, thus stopping the "stress" response.
However, when stress becomes chronic or constant, the repeated HPA axis activation becomes strained, and the level of sensitivity to the negative feedback loop of cortisol becomes increased. In other words, the body thinks that it is constantly in the "fight or flight" response induced by stress. Subsequently, there release of adrenaline and other similar types of hormones is constantly high, which can lead to
- High blood pressure
- Faster aging and cell death
- Disruption of other normal endocrine systems (such as your metabolism or reproductive system)
So how do we stop the dysregulation of your HPA axis? The easy response would be to remove the stress factor completely. But that being an almost impossible feat, it is more prudent to learn how to manage stress and balance your endocrine system in a way that it will eventually lead to the body normalizing itself. Acupuncture is a great tool to help the body achieve that. In addition, having regular exercise, a healthy diet rich in whole fruits and vegetables, and low in processed materials, bad fats, and sugars can go a long way in helping the body recover from HPA axis issues. It is amazing how interconnected the body is, and how sensitive the body can be even to small changes. So even if you start small and slow, given enough time you might be amazed at the bigger positive changes your body is capable of producing.