You may not have heard of HPA axis dysfunction but you've likely heard the term “adrenal fatigue”. HPA axis dysfunction is the more accurate term. “HPA” stands for Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal and this axis is a negative feedback loop that operates between these three glands in the body and controls our stress response. However, problems arise when this feedback loop malfunctions.
In today's modern world we are constantly bombarded by stressors. We have to get the kids off to school or daycare but they're not co-operating, we're late for work due to heavy traffic, we're bickering with our spouse over the silliest of things, there are financial woes, cancer seems to be everywhere, the news and Facebook are constantly telling us horror stories…. This is all psychological or “mind” stress. We can control the way we respond to these stressors, (or so the theory goes it may feel like sometimes!). But then there's the stress on our bodies. For example: we're on our devices until late at night, which reduces our melatonin production making us more susceptible to sleep disturbances and even cancer. Or we're eating crap food or foods that we are sensitive or intolerant to. We're also exposed to an incredible amount of chemicals each and every day and even excess exercise or chronic infections, SIBO or parasites can negatively impact our HPA axis and contribute to HPA axis dysfunction.
How does HPA axis dysfunction occur?
HPA axis dysfunction occurs because these days we seldom get a break from the above mentioned stressors. This is a problem because our bodies were only designed to be in the “fight or flight” or “sympathetic nervous system” state for a very short period of time; when a big scary animal was chasing us. We were designed to pump out cortisol quickly in order for us to be able to run away from these big animals. But once we were safe our bodies went back into the opposite nervous state called a “parasympathetic” or our “rest and digest” state. What occurs when you're constantly under a state of stress and pumping out cortisol non-stop is that your HPA axis kinda gives up. The feedback loop is more or less “worn out” and consequently it malfunctions.
How can you tell if you have HPA axis dysfunction?
Below is a list of symptoms for HPA axis dysfunction. Take a look and mark off any of the ones you have.
- Moodiness and emotional instability or excessive emotions
- Frequent screaming or yelling
- Confusion or difficulty with focus (brain fog)
- Feeling overwhelmed by the smallest of things
- Excessive empathy to human suffering
- A negative attitude
- Feelings of being a victim
- Inflamed skin i.e: rashes, eczema or psoriasis
- Predisposition to Hashimoto’s or connective tissue autoimmune disease
- Sugar cravings
- Intense hunger or feeling hungry shortly after eating
- Intense salt cravings
- Feeling unrefreshed after 8 hours of sleep
- A need for coffee or stimulants in order to function
- Low energy in the afternoon
- Getting a second wind late at night causing a “wired but tired” feeling that makes it difficult to fall asleep
- Waking in the middle of the night with a pounding heart
- Poor immunity – catching everything that’s going around
- Memory issues
- Dizziness when standing from a sitting or lying position
- Shakiness or irritability when you get overly hungry or skip meals
- Inability to recover from exercise.
If you said “yes” to three of more of these symptoms then you very likely might be suffering from HPA axis dysfunction.
What can you do if you have HPA axis dysfunction?
Lifestyle is KEY. You must work hard to eliminate or reduce the stress you are under – or that you perceive you are under, (there is a difference). Some ways in which you can do this include going for walks with friends in nature, meditation, getting massages, yoga, colouring, journaling, acupuncture, yoga nidra, – whatever gives you pleasure and a sense of peace and calm.
From a nutritional perspective I advise you give up coffee, eliminate refined and processed foods, balance your blood sugar levels and eliminate any foods you are sensitive to. There are also some supplements you can look into taking.
At the end of the day, preventing HPA axis dysfunction is the best thing you can do to help balance your hormones and set you up for a smooth transition through menopause. It's a lot harder to fix HPA axis dysfunction than it is to prevent it. If you're running around like a chicken with it's head cut off (I'm looking at YOU working mamas!) then be sure to take some time out on a regular basis to nurture yourself and your adrenal glands. Look after your HPA axis and it will look after you!
Please leave me a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!
In happiness and health,