Exploring The Stress Response: HPA Axis, Nutrition, Emotions & The Limbic System

Endocrine dysfunction is becoming increasingly more common. Thyroid conditions are epidemic. Adrenal exhaustion is all too common. There are a plethora of approaches to healing, restoration and regeneration of the endocrine system. However it should be pointed out that correcting these issues are often complex, take a good deal of patience and attention to detail. Additionally, among the most challenging for people with adrenal exhaustion are lifestyle changes, changes in attitude, work-related issues and emotional factors.

I don't believe that nutrition is only related to food. It has become very clear to me that nutrition can be of different types. Nourishment is also very much about taking care of one's body, being able to nourish and enjoy life. Too often I witness that people in varying states of adrenal fatigue need to take better care of their bodies and their health. This may include things such as:

  • Quitting a job that is holding you back and burning you out
  • Giving yourself additional rest and enjoyment
  • Being able to contemplate your life situation and face psychological, spiritual and emotional issues
  • Getting sufficient exercise, physical movement and activity

The HPA, HPT Axis & Hormones: Stress, Mood, Behavior

The adrenals are pivotal endocrine glands in the body's stress response. However, it should be pointed out that they are only part of a highly integrated network of endocrine glands, which function as cohesive and unified branches of the endocrine system. Tiny secretions of hormones from the pituitary and hypothalmus have a powerful, regulatory effect on the function of the adrenals, as well as the thyroid.

The target of most nutritional and allopathic therapies is to restore missing function to the thyroid and/or the adrenals through the use of natural or synthetic hormones, vitamins, minerals and herbs. It should be pointed out that the use of hormones, whether natural or synthetic can very easily result in further loss of function of a gland. Once taking exogenous hormones regularly, the gland in question may stop working on its own. The body signals there is enough of the hormone present, and is inhibited from making its own. Testosterone creams are known for causing a man's testicles to shrink because of this very issue.

Many of the hormones given such as thyroxine (T3, thyoid), hydrocortisone (adrenals) or bioidenticals such as progesterone creams are hormones that are "downstream". They are produced at the middle or at the very end of the hormone-producing cycle.

In order for the body to make the adrenal hormone cortisol, there must be several conversions of hormones:

  • Cholesterol > pregnenolone > 17 hydroxylation > progesterone > 17 hydroxyprogesterone > 11 deoxycortisol > Cortisol

In order for the testicles to produce testosterone, there are several conversions of hormones. Here is one pathway:

  • Cholesterol > pregnenolone > 17 hydropregnenolone > DHEA > Androstenidione > Testosterone

Giving a "downstream" hormone can cause an "upstream" suppression of the gland in question, particularly if given longterm. In addition to this, giving a hormone does not make the gland in question improve its function. It is only supplying what the gland is lacking to produce, and often in much higher amounts than what is normally being made.

Often ignored in hormone therapies are the functional relationships that exist between glands, particularly the command centers of the hypothalamus, anterior pituitary and posterior pituitary. The HPA (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal) axis should coordinate to effectively modulate the stress response. In addition to this, the HPA axis is largely influenced by the amygdala and hippocampus, parts of the limbic system responsible for the processing and storage of memory and emotions.

The limbic brain is very rich in cortisol receptors and can become damaged due to prolonged stress. Trauma and emotional trauma has a direct and impactful expression upon the function of the limbic system and thus the body's stress response. Hence, emotionally charged events early in life can have a significant impact upon the coordination of the HPA axis and the patterns of stress response of the body.

Certain meditative practices such as Vipassana are believed to have a direct influence upon the limbic brain, as well as the re-coordination of function of the HPA axis. Practitioners of this type of meditation often report latent, deep memories appearing in the mind and being re-lived during meditation as if an actual experience.

The pituitary gland is about the size of a pea, yet its 3 lobes, the anterior, intermediate and the posterior pituitary  produce some of the most powerful hormones of the body.

The posterior pituitary releases a hormone called oxytocin. It is produced in the hypothalamus, stored and released by the posterior pituitary. Oxytocin is involved in the regulation of sexual reproduction. However recent studies indicate that oxytocin is the key hormone that regulates empathy, love and bonding. Deficiencies in this hormone are often found among sociopaths, psychopaths and narcissists.

The posterior pituitary also produces vasopressin, which in many ways functions like oxytocin, but also regulates fluid dynamics and water retention. It is not uncommon for people with adrenal burnout and endocrine axis dysfunction to experience fluid retention and water weight gain due to aberrations of the posterior pituitary.

The anterior pituitary produces Luteinizing Hormone (LH), which produces the corpus luteum, which in turn produces progesterone and estradiol in women.

It is important to point out that loss of normal HPA/HPT axis function will have a direct impact upon a wide variety of physiological, psychological, emotional and behavioral functions. The implication here is that "burnout" from a prolonged stress response and loss of HPA/HPT axis function reverberates downstream to a number of bodily processes.

Glucose & HPA Axis Function

The importance of normal blood sugar regulation among those with HPA axis dysfunction cannot be overstated. Cortisol is a primary means the body uses to raise glucose levels in the blood. People with HPA axis dysfunction often have cravings for sugar. Sugar to someone with adrenal burnout is like paper kindling: it produces a huge flame that burns up very rapidly.

Due to highly individualistic metabolic factors, the type of diet necessary for the restoration of HPA axis function is not the same for everyone. A deeper analysis of metabolic factors must be considered in each person.

Implementation Of Strategy For Deep Healing

As stated earlier in this article, restoration of endocrine function is often complex and takes attention to detail. Often, a person is eager to heal, however unable or unwilling to make the necessary lifestyle changes to accompany a nutritional program.

If one's lifestyle, ways of thinking and habitual patterns of behavior cannot be analyzed and adjusted, healing through nutrition is much more challenging, and in many instances not possible. The patterns set into the limbic system need to be shifted in order for deep healing to occur, in order to retrain and restore the function of the HPA axis. Meditative practices, yoga, chiropractic, kinesiology, yoga therapy, Qi Gong, breathwork, and similar practices can have a powerful effect upon the deep rooted patterns of stress in the limbic system and HPA/HPT axis, and should be strongly considered as part of a serious healing practice.

Whole food nutrition, and whole food vitamin, mineral and glandular therapy along with herbal medicine can powerfully improve mitochondrial function, supplying the cells with the raw materials necessary for cellular and tissular regeneration. Nutritional therapies need to be tailored to the needs of the individual, as biochemical individuality dictates in all instances.