What the heck is the HPA Axis?
HPA stands for Hypothalomic-Pituitary-Adrenal. Both the Hypothalumus and Pituitary gland are located in the brain while the adrenal glands are located above the kidneys. The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis primarily functions as one of our stress response systems. After a stress event occurs, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks in our fight or flight response. Next, the HPA Axis kicks into action responding to hormones secreted during the fight or flight response. The hypothalumus communicates with the pituitary gland which then communicates with the adrenal glands. In response, the adrenal glands produce cortisol. The HPA Axis in turn communicates with the SNS to keep the gas peddle down for our stress response.
Here’s a great video for visual learners that names the hormones specifically, where the hypothalamus and pituitary gland are in the brain, and the location of the adrenal glands above our kidneys
HPA Axis Disregulation or Adrenal Fatigue
Unfortunately with chronic stress, the HPA Axis becomes disregulated. The result can be too high or low levels of cortisol in our body. This disregulation can result in a compromised immune system, low energy levels, and inflamation So while, “adrenal fatigue” has become a catchall phrase for individuals that are regularly tired, have wacky circadian rhythms, feel depressed, etc , it’s possible the real culprit of these symptoms is a disregulation of the HPA Axis.
How does Yoga Improve Regulation of the HPA Axis
The most obvious way to regulate the HPA Axis is to destress. Yoga has been know to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which is the brake to the stress response of SNS (fight or flight). It’s not that the SNS is bad and the PNS is good, but for many of us we are out of balance, The goal is to have balance between the two, which in turn helps us better respond to stress from the get go. Since over exercising can be a cause of HPA Axis disregulation, slow yoga is the best approach to take.
Another method to help regulate the HPA axis is to get a good nights sleep. However, if your cortisol levels are high in the evening, falling asleep at a sensible time can be difficult. Yoga Nidra and meditation can be great ways to combat wakefulness when you’re feeling ready to sleep but your body says no. If you are not familiar with Yoga Nidra or meditation and do not live near a studio that offers these, there are apps which you can use like Insight Timer or Head Space to guide you nightly.
Yoga and the Brain
If you’ve read this far, I hope that means I was able to simplify the workings of this particular brain system and how yoga helps bring our body through our brain into homeostasis. Check out last week’s blog about the brain and Manifestation. I will continue to provide content like this on my blog and welcome comments, questions or suggestions. Be sure to sign up for the newsletter for future content on how yoga benefits the body through the brain.