The HPA (hypothalamus- pituitary- adrenal) axis might be something you’ve heard in the wellness world or on social media, but what is it exactly? Why is it important? And what can happen if it’s not functioning properly?
What is it?
The HPA axis is a hormone response system that regulates cortisol in the body. Whenever your brain experiences a stressor, whether it is real or perceived, the stressor is processed in the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then sends a signal to the pituitary gland to release a neurotransmitter to your adrenal glands that will influence the release of cortisol.
Now, let’s turn that science talk into an analogy for the HPA axis that relates to an emergency response situation…
- The H (hypothalamus) acts like the witness who calls 9-1-1 to tell them that there seems to be an emergency.
- The 9-1-1 operator is the P (pituitary gland), who puts out the call to first responder units that something is wrong.
- The first responder units are A (adrenal glands) and they send out the first responders to get your body away from the trouble and primed to deal with the potential aftermath.
Why is it important?
It’s so amazing how fast this works! I just experienced it the other day when a deer ran out in front of my car. I could feel those first responders circulating in my body to help me focus on protecting myself.
Unfortunately, a deer jumping in front of your car is just one of many stressful situations we can experience in a day. Others include a stressful job or co-worker, a difficult home situation, financial struggles, low blood sugar from inadequate nutrition, and more. This can put us in a state of chronic stress. And these real-life stressors activate that HPA axis.
What can happen if it’s not functioning properly?
A chronically activated HPA axis can have a negative impact on our health. Some of those symptoms include:
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep, poor sleep, or waking up tired
- Getting sick a lot
- Irritability, anxiety, depression
- Sugar cravings
- Insulin resistance, high blood pressure, high cholesterol
- Thyroid dysfucntion
- Hormonal imbalances
How can I nurture my HPA axis?
There are many ways to help support your HPA axis. Here’s what my clients typically focus on:
Identifying the areas of your life that need attention instead of pushing it off
This includes therapy and also list making so there’s less worry that you’re forgetting something!
Developing a stress release practice
Some ideas include:
- Meditation – start slowly, 5 minutes per day. Use apps for guidance like the Calm app
- Journaling – Try gratitude journaling
- Gentle yoga – Can relieve nervous tension in muscles and joints
- Social connection – spend time with positive, loving people
- Reframe stressful situations – use a more positive viewpoint to make stress less damaging
- Go on a “news fast” and avoid news, social media, etc. to help reframe stress
Keeping your blood sugar levels balanced
Undereating and unbalanced meals throughout the day can be viewed as a physical stressor on the body. Consistently eating balanced meals is critical to managing this stressor.
Improving sleep hygiene
- Reducing blue light exposure for 1 hour before bed
- Going to bed around the same time every night
- Sunlight (or light therapy lamp) exposure first thing in the morning for about 20-30 minutes
Develop a movement practice
Developing a movement practice can greatly contribute to your overall health, well-being, and quality of life. Whether you’re a beginner or already active, creating a consistent movement routine tailored to your preferences and goals is essential. Remember that a movement practice should be sustainable and enjoyable. It’s not just about hitting specific goals; it’s about nurturing your body, mind, and spirit through regular physical activity.
Use targeted adaptogens to support your adrenal stress response
Using targeted adaptogens can be a beneficial approach to support your adrenal stress response and promote overall well-being. Adaptogens are natural substances that help the body adapt to stress and maintain balance. Remember that adaptogens are not a replacement for a balanced lifestyle and medical advice. They can be a supportive tool in managing stress and promoting well-being, but individual responses may vary. Always prioritize your health and well-being by seeking professional guidance when needed.
Want help implementing nutrition and lifestyle changes?
Make an appointment! We accept insurance, most of which cover nutritional counseling, and we have people on our team to help you answer questions about insurance coverage and walk you through the scheduling process, step by step. If you have insurance coverage, you have nothing to lose by booking that initial visit!
Written by our women’s health and hormone expert, Jess Bryan MS, RD, LDN