Adrenal fatigue, or for a more scientific term, HPA axis dysfunction; if you haven’t heard about this condition, you should know about it. It may explain some symptoms that just don’t make sense. But how do we recognize that we may have it, or better yet, treat it? This article is your 101 on everything you need to know about HPA axis dysfunction, including why it matters and how to feel better.
What Is ‘HPA Axis Dysfunction’?
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA axis represents the relationship between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. It plays a significant role in how you respond to stress. For example, when you experience stress, whether big or small, this system releases stages of hormones that eventually results in cortisol, the main stress hormone. Cortisol then activates your fight-flight-or-freeze state to respond to potential threats. Unfortunately, when the body experiences persistent stress, dysfunction occurs.
What Causes HPA Axis Dysfunction?
The HPA axis functions as a cycle, meaning the glands receive information and send signals to balance hormone levels.
The hypothalamus and pituitary glands receive information that cortisol has been released, which stops other hormones from releasing and the adrenals from producing cortisol. When cortisol decreases, the body activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and hormone levels return to baseline. However, chronic stress disrupts this system, and over time, the HPA axis no longer responds to signals to stop releasing hormones. This dysfunction, in turn, leads to adrenal fatigue and a host of distressing symptoms.
24 HPA Axis Dysfunction Signs and Symptoms
While the biggest symptom of HPA axis dysfunction is chronic fatigue that doesn’t get better with sleep, many other signs and symptoms pinpoint your adrenals are low. Here are several to increase your awareness;
- Significant fatigue
- Difficulty getting up in the morning/difficulty falling asleep
- Brain fog
- Strong salt and/or sugar cravings
- Mood swings
- Inability to cope with stress
- Become stressed easily
- Lack of motivation
- Dependency on stimulants for energy
- Slow wound healing
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Low blood pressure/dizziness
- Poor circulation
- Comprised immune system
- Blood sugar problems
- Increase in belly fat
- Dry skin
- Poor muscle tone
- Low sex drive
- Irritable bowel syndrome
As you can see, this condition is a serious matter, but thankfully several treatment options exist. Let’s dive in.
8 Treatment Options for HPA Axis Dysfunction
1. Following a healthy diet
Several factors disrupt the HPA axis, one being unhealthy eating. It exaggerates the stress response making it harder for our bodies to return to balance. Unfortunately, as delicious as they are, processed and refined foods are a no. Instead, choose nutrient-dense foods that calm your blood sugar levels, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes. Probiotic foods will further help your gut microbiome and support the HPA axis.
2. Avoid stimulants
This tip may be hard to avoid since the dysfunction causes severe fatigue, but too much coffee negatively disrupts your sleep and can even delay the timing of your body clock. However, low doses of caffeine several hours before bed shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, if you can avoid 6 hours before you get ready for bed, even better. Additionally, limit your alcohol usage until your adrenal levels reset. Alcohol increases your cortisol levels and affects the HPA axis.
3. Regular exercise
Consistently moving your body is one of the best tips to regulate the HPA axis. Research found those who exercised regularly experienced less stress, a more balanced heart rate, and improved heart rate variability compared to those who didn’t. When you can, prioritize exercise every day. Whether it’s going for a long walk or quick jog, or completing a yoga class, every bit of movement helps decrease your stress levels.
4. Prioritize sleep
This article wouldn’t be about the HPA axis if it didn’t address the importance of sleep. Chronic fatigue is the most significant symptom associated with dysfunction. So, follow a consistent wake and sleep schedule, and adopt habits that will mindfully prepare you for bed. Your body needs to heal for your adrenal levels to balance. And sleep is the vehicle that will drive you to better wellness.
5. Relaxation techniques
Any time you feel your stress creeping, take a few minutes, bring your attention to your breath, and anchor yourself to the present moment. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing activate your parasympathetic nervous system and decrease your cortisol levels. If deep breathing isn’t your thing, try walking in nature and connecting your senses to the world around you. Name what you see, feel, hear, and smell.
6. Practice mindfulness and meditation
The foundation of mindfulness and meditation helps us grow and flourish in times of stress. And with chronic stress as a byproduct of HPA axis dysfunction, both will aid relaxation and calmness. For instance, try a guided meditation before sleep and prioritize staying in the here and now. While it’s easier said than done, a consistent meditation practice will refocus your mind and train you to respond rather than react.
7. Speak to your doctor
While many articles recommend herbs or vitamins, this can be a little dangerous. Firstly, the FDA does not approve supplements based on safety concerns. And secondly, everybody is different. What works for one person may not work for another. Therefore, the best advice is to speak with your doctor directly. They will prescribe meditations based on your current condition, including select vitamins, and antidepressants if necessary.
8. Seek therapy
Unfortunately, an unregulated HPA axis causes depressive and anxious feelings, including chronic stress. It’s, therefore, important to speak with a therapist and receive psychotherapy like cognitive behavioral therapy or counseling. Both forms of therapy help address mental health conditions that could affect the HPA axis like PTSD, including discovering the underlying root causes of your stress and how to respond to and control it better.
HPA axis dysfunction is a serious problem that can disrupt your daily functioning, including relationships, work, and day-to-day tasks. It’s, therefore, important to address these concerns if you feel like you’re experiencing adrenal fatigue. Following these tips, especially seeing your doctor, will lead to improved emotional and physical health.
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