Understand your body: the HPA axis and stress response

HPA axis and dealing with stress welbeing retreat

In this article, Lisa (founder of La Crisalida) looks at what the HPA axis is, how it helps us deal with stress and what happens when things go awry. She looks at the impact cortisol has on our body – naturally and when things get out of balance. At the end, you can find ideas on things you can do to maintain a healthy HPA axis.

What is the HPA axis?

The HPA axis stands for hypothalamic – pituitary – adrenal axis. These are all glands, part of the endocrine system.

The HPA axis describes the interaction between these glands (technically called a neurohormone feedback system). Its main function is to respond to stress, but it also has a function in immunity and reproduction. It has a role to play in the release of cortisol – sometimes referred to as the stress hormone.

Biologically, the adrenal glands are located on top of the kidneys. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland are located at the base of the brain (just above the brainstem). The job of the hypothalamus is to regulate hormone levels. The job of the pituitary gland is to produce and release hormones. The adrenal gland is also involved in the production of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. Hormones are chemical messengers, essential for the functioning of our body, in particular development, growth and mood. There is what is known as a feedback loop between these glands.

Naturally, cortisol levels in our body vary during the day. Typically, they are highest first thing on a morning (so we feel active to get out of bed and move forward in our day). They then dip throughout the rest of the day, reaching the lowest levels by night (so we can sleep) – this is referred to as a circadian rhythm.

Why does the HPA axis matter?

You will have heard about the sympathetic nervous system. When we experience danger or a stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system is activated – this helps our body to take immediate action and why this system is sometimes called fight or flight. According to science, about 10 seconds after the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the HPA axis is stimulated. The effects of this stimulation on the HPA axis leads to a chain of events, causing the production and release of cortisol into the body.

Cortisol in turn has a number of effects on your body. Your blood pressure increases, as does the heart rate, so there is more blood moving to your muscles. This means you can act or move quickly. Glucose is also released – increasing the level of energy for your cells to enable you to take action. Cortisol also inhibits processes, such as reproduction and digestion – non-essential processes when dealing with danger!

So far, all of this is part of the natural bodily processes. Once the danger or stressful situation has passed, the sympathetic nervous system switches off, cortisol levels should drop, and things return to normal.

Having a healthy balanced HPA axis means we are capable of dealing with occasional stress and danger. Stress could be physical, mental or emotional – for example being scared or nervous.

What is HPA axis dysregulation?

When one experiences stress for a long period of time, it can lead to dysregulation of the HPA axis.

Dysregulation is a term which is used for physiological processes and means that things are not working as they should.

In terms of the HPA axis, this means that hormones and other chemical messengers, which are naturally and necessarily produced, get out of whack and might not revert back to normal as they should. Essentially, the feedback loop is not working between the brain and the adrenal glands.

For example, if you experience high levels of stress every day, the HPA axis can become dysregulated, meaning the bodily normal pattern of cortisol secretion is interrupted. Sometimes cortisol levels remain stubbornly high. Cortisol is not supposed to be produced for a long period of time.

High levels of cortisol over a prolonged period could lead to physical and mental challenges, including diabetes, obesity, digestive issues, problems with memory and cognition, or mood disorders and depression, amongst other things.

HPA axis and science

Over recent years the number of scientific studies looking at the effects of the HPA axis on our body, and looking at drugs and therapies which can support this have increased dramatically. This increase in scientific interest is good news for us as scientists seek to understand how our body works, holistically.

How to support a healthy HPA Axis

As you might have noticed, prolonged periods of stress – pressure from work, family, anxiety, worries about loved ones, the pandemic – can lead to dysregulation of the HPA axis. So, it is important to build into your daily life ways to relax and unwind. This will help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system – our rest and recover system.

We encourage you to consider what are the best ways for you personally to relax? Here at La Crisalida Retreats, we believe that every individual is unique. This means what is relaxing for me, might be the opposite for you!

Here are some ideas to consider to support a healthy HPA axis and to manage your response to stress more effectively:

  • Yoga (there are lots of different styles, so explore, try different types to find one or more styles that suit you)
  • Meditation
  • Exercise (in the aerobic zone, to avoid stress – see our article below) – dancing, jogging, playing a sport with friends
  • Taking a walk or riding a bike in nature
  • Having a massage or other relaxing holistic therapy
  • Listening to music
  • Taking a bath, swimming, or enjoying a sauna and jacuzzi
  • Aromatherapy oils
  • Take a retreat or holiday
  • Take regular breaks during your work day
  • Have a day or two each week enjoying plant-based food or juices to boost your nutrition
  • If you are experiencing stress, consider taking a good quality vitamin supplement, for a short period of time, to support your body.

Read more about what you can do on our blog

We have a number of other articles on our health and wellbeing blog that you might be interested in reading, including:

Come on a retreat

Taking time out of your daily routine, in a supportive environment, like we have here at La Crisalida, can help you to re-connect, re-balance and re-energise. We offer you the choice of a wide range of activities, nutritious plant-based meals (or juices) to support your health from the inside out and time to find the authentic you.

Education and physiology are both important parts of our holistic programme for health and wellbeing, as is yoga, meditation, exercise and plant-based nutrition.  By sharing this article we hope to give our guests and readers tips for how they can support and take control of their own health and wellbeing, to manage their stress more effectively.

About the author

Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).