The HPA Axis Part 1: What is the HPA Axis?
This week, I'm starting a new series on the blog that correlates with what I am learning in my latest continuing education course through Restorative Wellness Solutions. I just started level 2 last week which covers hormones and adrenal health, hence the new series topic: the HPA axis. Let's jump in.
What is the HPA axis?
In order to explain what the HPA axis is, let's back up just a bit. The endocrine axis is the most powerful system to get the rest of the body to respond through the work of glands communicating to other glands to secrete hormones for a specific purpose. Glands that signal in a sequence are known as an axis. The HPA axis, therefore, is a sequence of the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands working together to perform specific functions, and it falls within the "umbrella" of the endocrine system.
Let's break this process down:
The hypothalamus is the master conductor gland. It gathers feedback from the body, determining what the body needs, and then relays that information to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then tells the respective glands (in this case the adrenals, but there are other axes as well that involve other glands) what needs to be done, how much of a specific hormone to produce, and where it needs to go. Then, the adrenals in this case respond to the pituitary's call, do what they are told, and report back to the hypothalamus that the message has been received. These small little glands can be oh so powerful!
The hypothalamus and the pituitary are both found in the brain, while the adrenals sit on top of the kidneys.
The pituitary gland has two lobes, the anterior (front) and posterior (back). The anterior lobe has the primary relationship with the endocrine system.
The adrenals are a bit more complex when it comes to their structure and jobs. The adrenals help us handle stress, regulate blood sugar, rebuild the body, repair tissue, make sex hormones, promote anti-aging, regulate our mood, and so much more.
The adrenals have two sections: the cortex (outer) layer and the medulla (inner) layer. Each of these four total layers produces different hormones (which we will cover in part 2).
Now all of this sounds really fancy and scientific, but what does it all matter? If you are someone who has every experienced stress of any magnitude in your life, then you have called upon the HPA axis. Anytime we encounter dietary, physical, emotional, genetic, or spiritual stressors of any kind, the HPA axis has to respond. This response is normal, nature, and necessary to keep us alive.
However, the problem becomes evident when we call upon this axis constantly when we are in a chronic state of stress. This can cause all sorts of health problems, some of which I have been dealing with for years, and it also causes the delicate communication system between the glands in the HPA axis to suffer. If the communication feedback loop suffers, hormones aren't produced like they should and trouble starts to arise.
As we go through the next several parts in this series, we are going to cover the four types of hormones, the common stressors that wreak havoc on the HPA axis, and what can happen when cortisol becomes dysregulated. Stay tuned - this may prove to be more relevant for your health than you may realize.