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What does Chronic Stress do to the body? Understanding the HPA Axis.

by Dr. Mitchell Rasmussen, DC, CFMP, FRC-ms

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HPA Axis = Hypothalamic, Pituitary, Adrenal axis.

The hypothalamus is a part of the brain. It recognizes stress; and when we are stressed, the hypothalamus signals to the pituitary (a gland, also in the brain) that it is time for the body to release stress hormones from the adrenal glands (organs located near the kidneys).

This is how the body copes with acute stress.

What is acute stress vs chronic stress?

For acute stress (think, running from a predator), this stress response system works great.

The problem in modern times is not typically the life or death struggle, but the chronic death-by-1000-papercuts type of stress.

Chronic stress keeps the HPA Axis constantly engaged. Your system is essentially stuck scanning for threats all day. This taxes the adrenal glands (glands responsible for making and secreting stress hormones) and also causes all sorts of bodily issues: mood, gut mucosal breakdown (leaky gut), heartburn, sleep, libido, immune system, thyroid health, appetite, and so on and so forth.

The following diagram outlines the feedback loops that occur with chronic stress. Please notice how an ongoing stressor will continue to drive cortisol release even though cortisol is inhibitory to the brain for stress hormone release. Over time, just as elevated blood sugars eventually lead to insulin resistance, the chronically elevated cortisol leads to ‘cortisol resistance’.

Now, we have excess cortisol floating around. Because your cells have stopped responding to the cortisol, they end up secreting inflammatory substances as a response. Here we go. What is designed by the body as an anti-inflammatory (this is cortisol; designed as an ‘immune suppressing’ hormone by the body due to its anti-inflammatory effects) has now caused inflammation due to the body changing the way it is able to respond to the substance. It is not as if cortisol has changed what it was doing and suddenly is a ‘pro-inflammatory’ molecule. No- what happens is our physiology changes its response as a result of chronically high stress hormones, aka cortisol.

Our physiology changes its response as a result of chronically high stress hormones, aka cortisol.

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When under chronic stress, the body shifts away from producing sex hormones and into producing stress hormones.

What can you do to protect your stress hormones?

Lifestyle! - In today's world, chronic stress is ignored as a byproduct of busy. We must put active measures in place to protect from the unseen toll. This means finding space to decompress with a mindfulness practice, stress relieving activity, and breath work.

Diet! - An anti-inflammatory diet may be the best approach for dealing with chronic stress. By removing inflammatory triggers and increasing nutrients, you can provide your body with the substrate needed to create hormones and function in a depleted state.


Are there supplements for STRESS RESILIENCE?

Adaptogenic herbs help the body with a more balanced stress response. They help regulate stress hormone production, as well as help modulate cellular sensitivity to stress hormones.

This in turn encourages a more appropriate bodily response to stress overall. Maca, rhodiola, corydalis, ashwagandha are just a few different adaptogens we use with great success clinically.

Conveniently, Rightful's Liquid Formula for Pain and Recovery contains many of these key adaptogenic herbs alongside broad spectrum CBD. Read more about the specific formulation and how it may address your stress and sleep.

If you're curious about building a personalized supplementation protocol for controlling and managing your stress response, contact us to book a consultation! (This can be remote).


Curious about how to eat to protect your stress response?

CLICK BELOW to access a PDF Handout of top Anti-Inflammatory Foods!

Download PDF • 45KB


Want to work with a functional medicine doctor to run labs and assess nutrient status? Struggling with hormone imbalance, IBS, weight gain, mood changes? Let's look at BIOCHEMISTRY. Read more about Functional Medicine at The Facility here.

Not sure where to start?

CLICK HERE to schedule a FREE 15-Minute Consult with Kate to determine your best course of action!

Or reach out by email



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Dr. Mitchell Rasmussen - Doctor of Chiro
Kate Daugherty - Nutritionist - Function
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