What in the world is the HPA Axis? First I must say this is not medical advice, but I am here to educate you on what the heck is going on in your body and how what you feed your body directly impacts your body.
The HPA Axis stands for: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, As the name implies it involves the hypothalamus, the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. This is a main component of the stress response. Our thyroid is also connected and affected by the release of the hormones from our stress response. Due to our busy stressful lives, diet and environment our HPA axis is usually skewed and working in a high stress mode. Stress can come in many forms. Whether it be physical, such as injury and illness, or emotional, the body perceives stress as a threat to homeostasis. Poor sugar regulation is a huge factor in the HPA disruption.
Blood Sugar Regulation
You don’t have to be diabetic to have uncontrolled blood sugar. Many of us do not properly pair our food choices with the proper protein, fats and carbs needed for our metabolism and have spikes and dips in our blood sugar multiple times daily.
Every time your blood sugar drops from eating an unbalanced meal or processed sugar or processed carb meal your body needs to bring it down. This is extremally taxing on a body, and most people live like this. It brings it down by releasing insulin from the pancreas, the pancreas then releases glucagon to bring it back up but it is usually not enough.
This is when you feel shaky and no matter what you eat you feel “odd” your body then goes into a fight or flight mode and your adrenals release epinephrine and cortisol to bring up the blood sugar.
It is an exhausting cycle that burns through your glucose stores and stresses out your cycle. The cycle that helps regulate your stress hormones is called the HPA Axis.
When blood sugar is imbalanced you cannot balance this axis, this leaves you in a chronic stressed unable to digest and cellular work properly state.
For the HPA axis to work, the body must first feel safe. We are becoming well-versed that our hormones are out of whack, but the harder thing to deal with is trauma. Trauma looks different for everyone. By restoring your minerals and working through mental blocks you can get your body into a healthy parasympathetic safe state again.
We are all familiar with the term “hormones”. Hormones are released from our endocrine system and the HPA axis is a triangle of three key endocrine glands that help the body regulate cortisol levels (our stress hormone) and maintain homeostasis.
When trauma is left unresolved and/or blood sugar is left uncontrolled hormones like the the ones that are involved in the HPA axis and Thyroid hormones become less important cease to function.
Responding to stress
When the body is exposed to a stressor our brain signals neurotransmitters which activates the HPA axis starting with the hypothalamus. Hormones such as the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) is released which then targets the anterior pituitary gland where receptors are kept. This then stimulates the production and secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into general circulation of your body. ACTH then binds to receptors on the adrenal cortex and stimulates the synthesis and release of glucocorticoids. The one we are familiar with specifically cortisol (known as the stress hormone). Epinephrine then triggers, glycogenolysis, gluconeogenesis, and lipolysis. Blood sugar rises and CRH & ACTH are suppressed via a negative feedback loop attempting to bring the body back to homeostasis. Insulin is then released to decrease to bring back down the sugar which we then usually reach for that sugar and fire our adrenals and fire more cortisol and repeat a dangerous cycle.
In response to cortisol the body induces a number of metabolic effects in order to restore the body back to homeostasis. Cortisol’s response in the body :
- Increases blood glucose concentration by activating enzymes in gluconeogenesis and inhibiting the uptake of glucose in peripheral tissues
- Stimulate inflammation by reacting to of cytokine receptors,
- Affect our thyroid hormone levels, specifically thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), triiodothyronine (T3), and thyroxine (T4).
What does this all mean?
Ultimately, this means an imbalance in homeostasis results in an imbalance in the hormones discussed above. This results in blood sugar dysregulation as well as potential thyroid hormone levels resulting in hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. Although a supplement may decrease the tilt of the axis the solution is finding the root cause and stressor. We can then live in a chronic sympathetic state (fight or flight) and have a miscommunication between the HPA-axis with dysregulated blood sugar.
So you know that being “hangry” and feeling those blood sugar spikes/dips are not normal, but now you know what it is doing on a hormonal and cellular level in your body.
How to improve your HPA Axis:
- Work on your blood sugar regulation by eating a whole food nutrient dense diet with balanced macronutrients. That is where working with a professional like an NTP comes in. After analyzing your food and mood journal and NAQ we can come up with a bio-individualized way of eating for you.
- Sleep Hygiene: Screens off before bed to decrease stimulation as well as activities to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This can include; dry brushing, vagal nerve exercises, yoga, meditating, breathing techniques or journaling.
- Routine: Your body and adrenals especially love routine. Eating around the same time, having morning and evening rituals so your body expects what is coming and how to react. Versus the constant unknown, rushing and surge of stress hormones.
I hope this is informative and able to help you heal. May the root cause be physical, emotional, or nutritional (the link to everything) I hope you are able to be more aware and intuitive to make changes in your body.
Smith, S. M., & Vale, W. W. (2006). The role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in neuroendocrine responses to stress. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8(4), 383–395. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2006.8.4/ssmith
Stephens MA, Wand G. Stress and the HPA axis: role of glucocorticoids in alcohol dependence. Alcohol Res. 2012;34(4):468-83. PMID: 23584113; PMCID: PMC3860380.