If you’re reading this thinking HPAwhat?! You’re not alone.
It’s kind of like one of those scientific-ey terms that unless you’ve studied it or have seen a holistic practitioner, you might not know about HPA axis dysfunction.
But if you gots anxiety, you gots to know about it.
The HPA axis is the simplified term for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, i.e. the “connection” between the hypothalamus (a part of your brain), pituitary gland (also in the brain), and your adrenal glands (what produces your stress hormones).
Your pituitary gland is what’s called a ‘master gland’ because it controls the activity of most hormone-secreting glands and it’s hella small - like the size of a pea.
This little baby pea-sized gland, controls basically all your hormonal activity. And it lives in your brain.
Which is one of the many reasons why hormones have EVERYTHING to do with your anxiety.
Between your hypothalamus, your pituitary gland and your adrenals the entire body is controlled.
Anxiety is known to originate from the amygdala - two tiny almond shaped regions of the brain that are basically the control centre for your emotions. These primitive regions serve as the surveillance system for your body.
Their job is to keep you safe, so they’re always on high alert … constantly lurking for danger.
They’re triggered whenever your body encounters a stressor—whether that’s from work, finances, relationships, school, or you know … a pandemic.
TBH they tend to overreact.
Within a split second of perceiving soooome sort of danger (which most of the time isn’t *real* danger), the amygdala sounds the alarm.
And rather than having some sexy a$$ firemen (or firewomen) sliding down a pole to come to the rescue, your body activates your HPA axis.
Once activated, a signal passes from the hypothalamus → to the pituitary → to the adrenals, telling the adrenals to pumppppp out lots of stress hormones (cortisol & adrenaline) to provide your body with fuel to escape said ‘danger’.
Unless your life is in actual jeopardy, this is a bit of an overreaction.
But nevertheless your body is now on high alert.
When you have anxiety, you’re always on high alert. Meaning your stress hormones are basically always running wild - thanks to this activation of the HPA axis.
Now this is where diet and lifestyle get very important...
The HPA axis isn’t just activated by a perceived threat, it can also be activated by non-obvious stressors.
Non-obvious stressors look like - diet, digestive imbalances, not getting enough sleep, the type of exercise you’re doing and when you’re doing it, environmental toxins, etc.
This may not be a perceived stress coming from the amygdala but it’s adding stress to your body, which kicks your adrenals into high gear.
This is where the breakdown happens.
The hypothalamus tells the pituitary to tell the adrenals to ✋ stop ✋ producing stress hormones, but the adrenals ignore your brain because something else is creating stress within the body.
Liikkeee …. diet, digestive imbalances, not getting enough sleep, overexercising, environmental toxins, etc.
The brain gets confused because the adrenals aren’t responding to feedback and they do not stop producing stress hormones.
This dysfunction results in chronically high cortisol and adrenaline pumping through your body all the time.
When this happens you experience symptoms like anxiety and/or low energy, brain fog, trouble sleeping, weight gain, depression and even autoimmune issues.
HPA axis dysfunction (aka chronically high cortisol + adrenaline) creating anxiety is a very common root cause I see in practice.
Studies show that people with generalized anxiety disorder have elevated total and peak levels of cortisol, ranging anywhere from 40-70% higher than people without anxiety.
So how do you deal with all this?
The best thing you can do is support how your body reacts to stress.
And since I’m basically a modern day witch, I turn to plant medicine before I turn to anything else.
Adaptogens are a group of plants that exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, anti-depressive, anxiolytic and nootropic activity. That’s a bunch of really big fancy words that basically mean they really, really, REALLY help the body deal with stress.
PS. anxiolytic in medicine means "a drug used to reduce anxiety".
Plants are so, so powerful.
Finding the right adaptogen for your needs is a game changer.
Some of my favs are: Ashwagandha, Cordyceps, Holy basil, Licorice root, Reishi, Rhodiola & Schisandra.
Adaptogens are so great for helping you deal with stress because they are involved in regulating balance via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and inhibiting or decreasing circulating levels of nitric oxide (NO) and cortisol—two substances that greatly increase stress levels.
I used to get so hot and bothered when someone would associate my anxiety with stress. But the truth is ... if you decrease your stress, you decrease your anxiety.
But... and this is a big BUT, you cannot and will not supplement your way out of lifestyle and dietary changes, especially when it comes to the stress response and adrenal health.
Remember that stress is not just whatever happens at work, whatever is going on with your finances, the state of your relationships, drowning in schoolwork … or this pandemic.
This type of stress we cannot control.
But the stress from our diet and lifestyle choices… that is 100% within our control.
Want to break up with your anxiety? Get your HPA axis under control using the power of plants + dietary interventions + lifestyle changes.