There is no doubt that prolonged stress has a profound negative impact on human health. The stress response is a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters that trigger several physical reactions designed to enable us to fight or flee when we are in a stressful situation. We have described those in more detail in a previous blog post.
The stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which are involved in the stress response, are secreted from the adrenal glands – two walnut-sized glands situated on top of the kidneys. You may have heard the term “adrenal exhaustion” or “adrenal fatigue”. For a long time, it was believed that constant output of stress hormones would ultimately exhaust the adrenal glands, rendering them unable to produce sufficient cortisol, adrenaline and other adrenal hormones.
Recent research has found that, as with many processes in the human body, the reality is more complicated than was first thought. Stress hormone production is governed primarily by the brain and the central nervous system, not the adrenal glands themselves. The majority of people with high or low cortisol have normally functioning adrenal glands. It is a brain-adrenal connection, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis – or HPA axis for short – that we need to look at. The HPA axis is a complex network of endocrine glands, hormones, neurotransmitters and other signalling molecules with wide-ranging effects throughout the body.
If the HPA axis is not working properly, the result can be impaired fertility, digestive problems, mental health issues, blood sugar imbalances and diabetes as well as high blood pressure. Resilience to stress is likely to decline, making us even more vulnerable to infections, inflammation and chronic illness.
The recovery from HPA axis dysfunction and the prevention of getting to that stage in the first place requires the same positive lifestyle changes we have so often written about in the past: adequate sleep, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, spending time in nature, natural light, laughter and relationships all contribute to recovery.
Diet, too, has an important role to play. Any process that happens in our body is based on chemistry, and chemistry requires adequate nutrition. Macronutrients – fat, protein, carbohydrates – and micronutrients – vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients – are the building blocks of those hormones, neurotransmitters, signalling molecules and tissues the HPA axis needs to work. The only way to supply those components is through our diet.
A poor diet is problematic, not just due to the lack of essential nutrients. It often also provides chemicals the body really doesn’t need, making things worse. Additives, unhealthy fats, and sugar promote inflammation, damage the gut, disrupt the microbiota, put a load on the liver, and interfere with cellular processes, causing additional stress.
Five Tips to Support Your HPA Axis
1. Eat Real Food
If you’re only going to do one thing, it should be this. “Real food” means buying ingredients, not meals: meat, fish, eggs, pulses, fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, nuts and seeds. And, yes, that means cooking from scratch. Only if you skip ready meals and take-aways, hyper-processed foods, and junk will you know what’s in your food. That way, you avoid additives, like emulsifiers, colourings, and artificial sweeteners, while providing the nutrients your body needs for repair and maintenance. You’ll want to include omega-3 fats (e.g. oily fish, milled flaxseed), vitamin C (fresh fruit, veg and herbs), magnesium (leafy green vegetables, seeds, nuts, and pulses), and polyphenols from dark chocolate (min. 70% cocoa).
2. Balance Blood Sugar
The stress hormone cortisol and glucose regulation are closely connected. Fluctuations in blood sugar influence cortisol secretion and metabolism, and vice versa. Blood sugar imbalances, therefore, have significant adverse effects on the HPA axis. Keeping your blood sugar stable is, therefore, a crucial step on the way to recovery. In our earlier blog post on stress, we have outlined how to balance blood sugar levels.
3. Choose healthy carbs
Low-carb diets are the talk of the town these days, and can provide many benefits. However, if you’re struggling with stress and need to support your HPA axis, now may not be the best time to try out a low-carb diet. There is still some debate on the impact of low-carb diets on cortisol levels. They may actually raise cortisol, while one study found that increasing carbohydrate intake reduced cortisol and improved the HPA axis’s responsiveness. It must be noted, though, that these were complex, wholefood carbohydrate foods, not processed, refined carbohydrates, which would only serve to upset blood sugar balance. Think wholegrain or sourdough bread, rolled oats, brown rice and barley, plus nutrient-dense foods such as sweet potatoes, pumpkin and squash, yams and whole fruit (not juice, which will play havoc with blood sugar levels).
4. Give your good bacteria some TLC
The digestive tract and the brain are in constant communication via the gut-brain axis, which links up with the HPA axis. Information between the gut and the brain flows in both directions. The microbiota – the community of microbes living in your gut – plays an important part in this.
You can support your microbiota by providing food for the bacteria: prebiotics. These are certain types of fibre that bacteria particularly like. In return, your beneficial bacteria produce nutrients for your gut cells, creating a healthy digestive system, as well as nutrients for you, such as additional B vitamins. Excellent sources of prebiotic fibre are oats and barley, flaxseed, apples, green bananas, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions and garlic, asparagus and even cacao. Different bacteria like different foods, and we know that diversity of the microbiota is a crucial factor for health. The more varied your diet, the more diverse your microbiota, so be creative!
Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurt, kefir and kombucha, contain live bacterial cultures. These are transient, meaning they will not settle in your gut but create a more acidic environment while travelling through. It is a climate beneficial bacteria like, while undesirable ones do not. You don’t need much, just a spoon- or forkful a day is sufficient but do include some fermented food every day.
5. Eat Mindfully
Eating on the run impairs digestion in many different ways, reducing the amount of nutrients we can absorb and damaging the gut. We wrote about that back in September 2019. But digestion is not the only reason why it is worth sitting down at a table and eating without distraction. A 2011 study found that mindful eating also reduced cortisol.
There is more you can do to support your HPA axis. A carefully customised supplement programme may also assist your recovery. If you are feeling stressed and would like to learn more, why not give us a call on 07966 478974?
Photo credit: josh-riemer-OH5BRdggi2w-unsplash