HPA-Axis, Stress and Cortisol

by | Sep 7, 2022 | Stress

What is the HPA-Axis? Is our stress response system, what I call our survival mode. It’s our key system of surveillance, protection, adaptation, and resilience.

So often when we first refer to the HPA axis we’re focusing on the adrenals as when you hear people talk about talking about “adrenal fatigue” and the impact of the stress response system. It starts in the amygdala. The amygdala is in the brain. The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis is based on the primary glands that regulate the Fight-or-Flight mechanism of the body. When we are under chronic stress, any one of these glands can demonstrate dysfunction leading to metabolic syndrome and immune system distress.

Our system perceives chronic stress of different forms; jet lag, night shift, lack of sunlight exposure, gut dysbiosis, restrictive diets, environmental toxins, chronic infection, brain fog, blood sugar dysregulation, obesity, history of trauma, rumination, menstrual cycles, malnutrition, and anger to name a few.

The HPA-Axis works on a feedback loop mechanism, where the chemical signals of the pituitary and hypothalamus stimulates cortisol production in the adrenal glands during stressful events, including those perceived stressors mentioned above, and the release of cortisol leads to reduced activity in the pituitary and hypothalamus. Conversely, not enough cortisol can lead to dysfunction in overworked glands trying to stimulate release, while too much cortisol can lead to gland shut down with steroid immune-suppressing influence. In both cases, with deficiency or excess, unmanaged cortisol production is the driver of HPA-Axis dysregulation and markers for metabolic dysfunction.

Cortisol, Insulin and Metabolic Syndrome:
What your body shape says about your health:

While pear 🍐 shape women can be predisposed to some hormonal challenges, these are normally nothing serious. However, apple 🍎 shape: wide around the middle, even if you are a slim apple (skinny-fat) is an indication that there is trouble with your cortisol or your insulin and that you got inflammation!!!

A waist circumference of more than 35” puts women at a danger-higher risk zone for disease: metabolic syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack and death. For men is greater than 40”.

WHR (Waist-to-Hip ratio): First circle your waist with a tape measure, just above the level of your navel, look for the number in inches.
Next: place the tape measure around your hips, at your actually hips, where your legs join into the sockets of your pelvis, which is usually at the widest part of your fanny; note the number in inches.
To calculate the ratio: put the waist number on the top of the fraction, and the hip measurement in the bottom.

Waist circumference in inches = WHR
Hip circumference in inches

Normal WHR (waist-to-hip ratio) for women is 0.80-0.84. Greater than 0.85 means obesity and cause trouble.

Exercise is part of maintaining good metabolic health, but over-exercising can be one of the drivers of cortisol and hormone imbalance you may be experiencing as the body can interpret this increase in cortisol as a flight-of flight response.

Fight-or-Flight and your Body’s Response

The Nervous System has two master operating systems: Sympathetic (fight-or-flight state) and Parasympathetic system (Rest, Digest and Ready to Make a Baby state). The Fight-or-Flight response is an active up regulation of stress hormone that holds the body’s metabolism as it is focused on survival, this often leads to anxiety, hypervigilance, cravings, increased fat storage, and difficulty with weight loss. While the Parasympathetic; Rest, Digest and Ready to Make a Baby mode focuses on relaxation of the vessels and surge of safety, calm and comfort and productions of digestive enzymes helping the body metabolize, absorb nutrients, and effectively perform autophagy. The state of the mind can significantly affect the body’s ability to build muscle and metabolize foods and can easily imply that even a perfect diet can be proven unsuccessful if the mind is overworked and the body is not able to reset.

Cortisol, a steroid hormone made by the adrenal glands, is also released during stressful times, which can lead to vascular restriction increasing blood pressure, irregular dips in energy with limited feeling of waking well rested, and blood sugar surge that increases fat storage. The cortisol is not preformed. It has to be made in response to the perception or the actual danger. It can happen in minutes. But the adrenaline is already there, and there are already preformed series of cortisol stored in the medulla ready for a survival mode response, also called the fight-or-flight response.

Stress is experienced and defined differently by each of us individually, however, the physiological response to stress is experienced trough the Fight-or-Flight Sympathetic Nervous System, this stress induced reaction includes the release of adrenaline and other catecholamine hormones including dopamine, serotonin, estrogen, and testosterone.

This cascade of cortisol induced reactions can drain your system. In fact, cortisol is called the wear and tear hormone. After a while and without intervention to manage the surge, leads to imbalances, trigger autoimmune disease and other sever conditions affecting all the systems: cardiovascular, endocrine, mood and mind, gut, and even musculoskeletal.

Fortunately for all of us, there are several Holistic, natural life modifications strategies, supplements and adaptogens that can aid in management of stress and prevention of HPA-Axis dysregulation and disease from it.

  • Self-Affirmations
  • Journaling
  • Meditation
  • Mindset Work
  • Sunlight Exposure
  • Time in nature
  • Yoga
  • Grounding
  • Helping others
  • Restore safety
  • Reduce Inflammation
  • Whole Foods Ketosis with Carb Cycling
  • HPA-Axis supportive supplements and adaptogens

One easy way to find out your allostatic load status and the severity of your fight-or-flight response is a 4-point cortisol salivary test.

*Test available to private clients 

*Private client intake consultation fee does not include labs, tests or recommended



In health and wholeness,


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