Your adrenal glands are found just above your kidneys, and they secrete reproductive hormones as well as stress hormones. Needless to say, they play an important role in how your body responds to stress.
When faced with danger (real or perceived), a series of events takes place internally to ensure you have the energy and clarity needed to deal with the situation at hand. This response to any stressor starts in the brain and activates the HPA axis.
What is the HPA Axis?
HPA axis stands for hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. The hypothalamus is a structure within the brain. When there is a perceived threat, the hypothalamus first sends a signal to the adrenal glands to release epinephrine (also known as adrenaline).
Epinephrine makes the heart beat faster to pump more blood and nutrients to vital organs. It also causes rapid breathing to supply more oxygen to the brain and increase alertness. In addition, epinephrine raises blood glucose levels to facilitate energy production.
After the initial burst of epinephrine, the hypothalamus releases a hormone known as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). This hormone triggers the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol.
Cortisol keeps the body fueled with energy and on high alert. During this time, all other bodily functions are halted. Once the threat has passed, the body resumes normal functioning.
It’s important to understand that this stress response is normal and essential for survival. It evolved to protect humans from life-threatening circumstances. However, the HPA axis wasn’t designed to handle constant threats. And unfortunately, chronic stress is far too common in our modern society.
As a result, the HPA axis may become dysfunctional. This may cause either abnormally high or low cortisol levels in the body.
Symptoms Related to HPA Axis Dysfunction
HPA axis dysfunction can lead to a variety of physical and mental symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Weight gain or loss
- Brain fog
- Poor memory
- Frequent illnesses
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Dry or itchy skin
- Cold hands and feet
- Food cravings
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle and joint pain
Adrenal fatigue is typically described as having low cortisol levels along with several of the symptoms above. And it’s believed to be caused primarily by chronic stress.
Therefore, one key factor to adrenal health is reducing and managing stress. However, it’s important to recognize there are many potential sources of stress.
Potential Sources of Stress
Psychological stress is almost always a factor involved in HPA axis dysfunction. Sources of psychological stress often include:
- Unhealthy relationships
- Poor work-life balance
- Family responsibilities
- Health status
- Significant life events (i.e., divorce, relocation, career change)
- Poor self-image
- Social pressure
However, several other external and internal stressors may also be at play, which include:
- Digestive dysfunction
- Imbalanced gut bacteria
- Environmental toxins
- Food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances
- Chronically low or high blood sugar
- Physical injury or trauma
- Sleep deprivation
- Nutritional deficiencies
Unfortunately, adrenal fatigue is quite common. And HPA axis dysfunction is linked to all other systems in the body as well as many other serious health conditions, including autoimmune disease, diabetes, mental illness, and heart disease.
There is also evidence that HPA axis dysfunction during pregnancy can affect fetal development. Therefore, your adrenal and HPA axis health is not something to be ignored.
Guilliams, T. G. (n.d.). The Role of Stress and the HPA Axis in Chronic Disease Management. Point Institute.
Guilliams, T. G., & Edwards, L. (2010). Chronic Stress and the HPA Axis: Clinical Assessment and Therapeutic Considerations (2nd ed., Vol. 9, Rep.). Point Institute.
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Xiong, F., & Zhang, L. (2013). Role of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis in Developmental Programming of Health and Disease. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 34(1), 27–46. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.yfrne.2012.11.002