Our last blog was all about how we respond to stress via our HPA axis and how, when incorrectly functioning, this can have huge effects on our health. So many of you seemed to have resonated with parts of that blog, so I thought I would follow it up with a bit of info on how we can support our body throughout these times of ill health and of course, the-never-escaping-it, chronic stress (oh how I want to live in the mountains and be stress free!)
There are a multitude of ways to support your HPA axis, this can range from supplements*, practicing mindfulness and of course, the crème de la crème….achieving and maintaining optimal gut function with a diverse range of healthy, nervous-system-supporting-and-loving-gut-bugs. I assure you that once the latter is in place, all else will follow, however we know people need support along their journeys, which is where the other aspects can come into play.
Mindfulness refers to a meditation practice that cultivates present moment awareness. It can be defined as paying attention to one’s inner and outer experiences in a non-judgmental manner from moment to moment. Or, more simply put, it is paying attention to the current situation that you find yourself in, not flicking through Facebook while you’re at the dinner table.
Mindfulness has been studied on the affects it has at restoring our cortisol levels to within the normal and healthy ranges. A systemic Review that was conducted earlier this year on the effects that Mindfulness has on stress and anxious symptomatology revealed that mindfulness in either the form of meditation, yoga, focus or daily breathing exercises showed a decrease in salivary waking cortisol levels as well as depressive and/or anxious symptoms .
By incorporating small acts of mindfulness into your daily routine, you can help decrease circulating cortisol and also improve your response to acute stressful episodes.
Supplementing for change
Vitamin and mineral supplementation certainly have their place in many different health conditions. Vitamins and minerals are not all made the same though so it is always important to know what types you are taking and when to take them correctly to get the most benefit. Here are a few of the most important ones that can help support our stress response system.
- Magnesium Ah magnesium, my favourite magical mineral. Oh how I adore thee… and oh how my HPA axis adores thee too. It is not a surprise that most people know this is a go to supplement when feeling overly stressed that’s because magnesium actually plays a part in modulating the HPA axis; it regulates the adrenal glands sensitivity to ACTH which then subsequently helps them release appropriate levels of cortisol to deal with the stressors. Depleted magnesium levels have been associated with elevated ACTH and CRH (two main drivers of our HPA) and (not surprisingly) enhanced anxiety-related behaviour as well . These HPA-disrupting-magnesium-deficiencies have shown sensitivity to some Pharmaceutical anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications  which, ironically (or maybe not) deplete magnesium!! So it makes total sense to take some medication for anxiety which is probably making the actual course of the anxiety in the first place worse… (please note: sarcasm).
- Vitamin C It’s the vitamin you pop when you feel a case of the sniffles coming on, but did you know it’s actually vital for our stress response system as well. The adrenal glands have one of the highest concentrations of vitamin C in the body. Adequate levels are a must for healthy adrenal function and support. People with high levels of vitamin C do not show the expected mental and physical signs of stress when subjected to acute psychological challenges . Vitamin C helps lessen the overall acute stress affect of cortisol, as well as systemic inflammation from chronic stress- it can actually abolish cortisol secretion in the presence of repeated stress .
- EPA/DHA k.a Eicosapentoenoic acid and Docosahexaenoic acid a.k.a omega 3 oils a.k.a -fish oil. The general consensus of these fancy-named-fats is that they are great for inflammation- which is true! Most people use them for arthritis type pain and the like. But, they generally stay shelved when coping with stress or suffering from chronic stress response dysfunction-and the related mental health concerns that can come with it – which they very well shouldn’t. Omega 3 fats are one of the only anti-inflammatory agents that can cross the blood brain barrier (BBB) , – unlike their pharmaceutically developed counterparts. Elevated cortisol is a neurotoxin. The abnormally high levels of cortisol that is present when the stress response is continuously activated exhibits neurotoxin activity –especially in the brain cells of our hippocampus which regulates mood. Cortisol also has direct influence over these beneficial fats- it directly inhibits enzymes responsible for the desaturation of these fats which leads to a decrease in plasma levels. So, elevated cortisol causes inflammatory processes the brain, at the same time it decreases the plasma levels of the one thing that can help counteract this. High levels of pro-inflammatory markers and low omega 3 levels are associated with depression and depression severity which can also be linked to a dysfunctional HPA axis.
- B Vitamins Really though, is there anything these guys don’t do? All of the B group vitamins (1, 2, 3, 5,6,12, Folate, choline, inositol, biotin) have important roles and responsibilities throughout our response to stress. Most act as coenzymes – meaning they help drive biochemical reactions that occur to make our response to stress possible . Chronic stress easily depletes our Bs and these guys really have their fingers in SO many pies that once they’re depleted many body systems run the risk of going further out of whack!
The true GUTS of things…
There are obviously many, many things that can help to support our ill health due to a dysfunctional HPA axis. But how do we actually re-set it? You know, re-wire all our bodily biochemical connections so they function as they should, when they should? Well…we venture into the epicentre… our gut!
Our gut is seriously the control room of our overall health, it stores the blue prints and holds all the CCTV footage of our inner most workings. People often argue what came first stress or HPA axis dysregulation? Well, in all honesty it doesn’t really matter, because if the gut isn’t flourished and nourished nothing will be working as optimally as it should.
Animal studies have shown us that animals that are raised to have a less diverse gut flora colony than what is the norm, have exaggerated HPA axis activity with elevated ACTH and cortisol even in response to mild stressors and, after colonisation of normal bacteria types and levels – their HPA axis response was normalised, with no other types of intervention .
Humans can acquire a less-than-desirable gut microbiota from many different sources, we can inherit it, our genes can manipulate it and it can develop from early life stress – the biggy being maternal separation at too young of an age . Also simple things such as how we were born (vaginally or caesarean) and being breast or bottle fed. Lots of pharmaceuticals disrupt our gut flora too (specifically antibiotics and anti-inflammatory style drugs) as well as any experienced stress or emotional trauma as an adult! And unfortunately…the list goes on. As mentioned above- our guts develop in a way to control almost all of our bodily functions and play a part in pretty well every health issue – either physical or mental, so to actually get in there and fix the nitty gritty of things… we need to fix our glorious guts.
Getting the correct levels of our beneficial bacteria buddies (such as bifidobacterium and lactobacillus species) have shown to have advantageous effects on issues such as depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, PCOS, hormone imbalances  – all the things that are also linked back to HPA axis dysfunction.
So instead of saying what came first stress or HPA axis dysfunction? I think a more appropriate saying would be at what point did our gut bacteria become unbalanced and what do I need to do to get it back in balance?
Many common (and also many un-common) health ailments can be traced, through the body, to the same cause, regardless of where the physical symptom is actually manifesting. Our HPA function (or lack thereof) is the driver of a lot of health concerns in modern society and our guts are the driver of the health of our HPA. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… our body is one unit, we are not separate segments, so if you’re suffering either chronic or acute ill health… head to the control room of your body to reset it.
*Please note, I will not be discussing dosage ranges as these can vary significantly from person to person and one must always consider possible interactions with any medications so I always encourage speaking with someone from the KW team or another trusted health care professional.
 M.C Pascoe; S.G Crewther, A Systematic Review of RCTs Examining the Effects of Mindfulness on Stress and Anxious Symptomatology, 2016, 12-17, Pubmed