8 signs you have HPA Axis Dysfunction.

HPA axis dysfunction leads to anxiety, high cortisol, and more.

HPA stands for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. The HPA axis is the part of our brain that reacts to stress. A perceived stressful event triggers the hypothalamus to release the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH triggers the pituitary gland to release the Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which then triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol activates our sympathetic nervous system and puts us into the fight or flight response. The hypothalamus responds to the level or cortisol released and thus creates the HPA axis cycle. Adrenal imbalance and fatigue can be a result of the continuous production of cortisol.

The HPA axis is also responsible for regulating digestion, our immune system, our mood, libido, the sleep/wake cycle, and the amount of energy our body produces. More on this in a second.

The National Library of Medicine presented a new model to further explain HPA axis dysfunction.

What is stress?

Stress is any circumstance that triggers the alarms that there is a threat to our body’s homeostasis. We need the release of cortisol when we are faced with danger and must run away or fight to make the environment safe again. A situation like this allows our body to use the cortisol that is released and when safe our HPA axis also returns to a homeostasis level. Unfortunately, there are so many stressors in our lives today and can create a dysregulation of the HPA axis function. These stressors may include:

  • Financial issues
  • Changes in living situation
  • Exercise – yes, even positive things like exercise trigger the release of cortisol
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Emotional upset
  • Work overload
  • Traffic
  • Injuries
  • Relationship issues

Chronic and persistent stress causes a dysfunction of the HPA axis. Many of us battle with chronic stress due to the lengthy list of life stressors that we face daily. Chronic stress keeps the HPA axis cycling, thus pumping out more and more cortisol.

8 signs of HPA axis dysfunction

Exhaustion: Persistent feeling of low energy. Your body is in overdrive when there is dysfunction of the HPA axis. It is constantly preparing you to fight or run away and that is exhausting. Even if you sat on your couch all day you still feel lethargic because on the inside you are operating at high speed.

Difficulty falling asleep: As mentioned above, your body is in overdrive. This can create feelings of restlessness and inability to relax despite feeling exhausted. Your thoughts may also be racing which can lead to difficulties falling asleep.

Digestion issues: As mentioned earlier, the HPA axis is responsible for regulating digestion. Digestion is suppressed when you are in fight or flight mode. Food sits in your stomach longer which can lead to heartburn, indigestion, IBS, and other digestion problems.

Weight gain: You may find yourself having difficulty losing weight. HPA axis dysfunction continuously pumps cortisol into your body which can cause your body to store extra fat in preparation for fight or flight.

Anxiety: HPA axis dysfunction creates the same physiological response as anxiety. Increased heart rate, sweating, restlessness, increased breathing, and feeling weak or tired. You may also experience racing thoughts and brain fog. (Although, not all anxiety is bad. Read about that here).

Mood dysregulation: The HPA axis impacts our thyroid function which can have a direct impact on our mood and ability to regulate our emotions.

Food or substance cravings: Many of us crave sweets, salty food, alcohol, or other substances when we are stressed.

How to regulate your HPA axis

Clear the cluttered thoughts: journal, brain dump, or talking to a friend or therapist can help slow down those racing thoughts that feed into the hypervigilance of HPA axis dysfunction.

Meditation: taking time to focus on slowing your breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system which slows the HPA axis and production of cortisol.

Break-down tasks: lessen the load of each task to make it more manageable.

Talk to a therapist: There are several therapeutic modalities that can help calm the sympathetic nervous system and regulate the HPA axis.