Stressful events kick our nervous systems into fight-or-flight. And while that’s a healthy response to a stressful stimulus, we simply live too much of our lives and spend too much of our time in this high-octane state. Biochemically, this is a state designed to help us run from a tiger; and the body’s stress response system is a tightly regulated chemical cascade that includes several regions of neuroanatomy plus the adrenal glands within a system called the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) Axis.
The hypothalamus receives input from the brain regarding our environment (think piercing alarm clock or emotionally charged conversation). Basically, the brain tells the hypothalamus about anything outside our ideal state. The hypothalamus responds by sending chemical messages via hormones to the pituitary gland, which in turn secretes its own hormones that target the adrenal glands. As a result, the adrenal glands produce cortisol, which serves as the final chemical messenger of the stress response system. A healthy individual’s cortisol secretion follows a daily pattern much like the tides: there are two highs and two lows every 24 hours.
Once cortisol is released by the adrenals, it has wide-reaching effects throughout all of the body. During a stressful event, cortisol moves blood away from digestion and reproductive organs towards the heart and brain. This response is designed to keep us alert once we feel threatened and allow us to either put up a good fight or run away by pumping more blood, hence the term “fight-or-flight.” Once the stressful event is over, the brain provides that input to the HPA-Axis and cortisol levels return to normal. But, if the body cannot overcome a particularly stressful event, or we are chronically exposed to smaller daily stressful events, the brain never tells the HPA-Axis that the stress response should stop and cortisol secretion goes into overdrive.
Stress responses that go on too long leave us feeling fatigued in a way that’s difficult to recover from. Because stress has such a deep and lasting impact on the body, special care must be taken to restore mineral reserves, correct cortisol secretion, repair cellular damage, and enhance mood. Specific details on how to accomplish these goals and restore from the effects of stress are discussed in the following posts.
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