“It’s not stress that kills us, but our reaction to it.”
Do you know how stress works in your body? And how it affects your body? To better understand stress, we need to first gain a baseline understanding of our nervous system.
We’ve all experienced the “fight or flight” response, this is our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) taking over and trying to keep us safe. Then, there’s the “rest and digest” response. This is our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that restores the body to balance. Keeping these two systems in the body working efficiently and properly can mean the difference between illness and wellness.
Let’s dig into the SNS because this is where we all get trapped.
When talking about the SNS, it’s always good to start with the seemingly magical part of the body called the HPA axis. So, what is that exactly? Good question. Knowing more about this amazing system can be helpful in your daily life.
What does HPA stand for?
H = Hypothalamus. P = Pituitary. A = Adrenal. They all work together to form the main stress response system in the body by secreting necessary hormones, like cortisol, adrenaline and corticotropin (among many others).
Here are the basics:
This is your control center. This tiny gland at the center of your brain is responsible for so much of your basic survival. From regulating your body temperature to commanding what hormones need to be released to maintaining homeostasis. It works hand-in-hard with the next gland, the Pituitary!
(anterior - growth hormone and thyrotropin, posterior - vasopressin and oxytocin)
Another seed-sized gland located just under the hypothalamus, this gland helps us grow…think of lactation, oxytocin and human growth hormone. It can also play a role in our spiritual growth. How cool is that?
(cortex - cortisol and DHEA, medulla - adrenaline and epinephrine)
These glands are located behind the kidneys and are responsible for cortisol release. When your adrenals are overworked, because of the constant stimulation to send out cortisol, they simply shutdown.
Having had adrenal fatigue myself, I can tell you it’s no fun. You feel exhausted and burnt out, mole hills become mountains and you can barely think clearly enough to get through your daily tasks. And then, if all that’s not enough, the anxiety creeps in.
Listen, our body needs stress for several reasons, but too much of it and we run the risk of putting our bodies in a habitual cycle that is dangerous. Sustaining healthy cortisol levels is imperative to good health, and isn't that what we all want?
It’s important to mention here that there are many kinds of stress such as biological, chemical, environmental, nutritional, physical, psychological and spiritual.
These are the basis of most health issues, leading to adrenal fatigue, inflammation, brain fog, weight gain, low immunity, hormonal imbalances and insomnia. For so many of the people I work with, we have to work backward from the symptom to the root and very often, the root is stress.
So what can we do? How can we have the HPA axis work for us and not against us?
We’ll dive into that in part 2, stay tuned!
Footnotes: Hans Seyle was one of the first to study stress in the 1930s. He is commonly known as the “father of stress research.”
Adaptogens; herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief -David Winston and Steven Maimes
Adaptogens; harvest the power of superherbs to reduce stress and restore calm -Paula Grainger
Adaptogens; Herbs for Longevity and everyday wellness -Adriana Ayales