Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA)

Stress serves an important role in our lives. It propels us to jump out of the way of speeding cars, finish papers by their deadlines, and push ourselves to excel in sports. However, when stress becomes a chronic occurrence, it can wreak havoc on our physical, mental and emotional health.

Long term stress resulting in chronic over activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis can lead to mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, mood swings and irritability. Long term exposure to elevated stress hormones contributes to a host of other heath conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, irritable bowel disease and auto-immune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.

There are several ways that a woman may develop HPA axis dysfunction:

  • Exposure to prenatal stress
  • Presence of maternal depression, lack of mothering skills that result in neglect or separation from mom
  • Early-life exposure to extreme or prolonged stress caused by trauma, abuse and neglect
  • Repeated episodes of trauma, abuse and environmental or interpersonal stressors such as death of a loved one, divorce, chronic bullying, abandonment by a parent or the break-up of a significant relationship.

HPA axis dysfunction results in the following conditions:

  • The system is stimulated to produce too much cortisol.
  • The response to a trigger or stressor that does not require the response.
  • Failure to “turn off” the system resulting in hyper arousal (anxiety).
  • After periods of chronic and repeated stress, the system “burns out” and fails to respond to signals to release cortisol.

The following PDF's provide additional, in-depth information about the HPA Axis and its' relationship with stress: 

Chronic Stress and the HPA Axis

HPA: Turned on at Puberty in Girls