• Emily Achey, MS, RD

Stress Is Stress Is Stress | HPA Axis Activators

Updated: Jan 5

The perception of stress by the hypothalamus is what activates the HPA Axis Pathway to ultimately produce: cortisol. The caveat to the whole thing is that the Hypothalamus does not discriminate against any kind of stressors. Stress, in any form, will be perceived by the Hypothalamus as harmful to the body and thus, and to protect us, will activate the HPA Axis stress response to get cortisol circulating.

In this article, we will discuss the variety of different stressors that activate the HPA Axis Pathway, and what you can do today to start decreasing the potential negative effects of chronic over-activation.

First, a brief review on the Hypothalamus:

The hypothalamus (the "H" in HPA) is the first- in- line commander within the HPA Axis. It is the

almond shaped neuroendocrine organ in the brain that scans the body for stressors, and when one is detected, tells the pituitary gland what to do next to fix it. The important thing to note here is that the Hypothalamus does not care what kind of stress is happening. It does not rank stressors on severity and act accordingly. They are treated the same!

One may question why a part of the immensely intelligent brain could be so...dumb?...but the truth is, this mechanism was installed in our physiology to protect us. We, as human beings, are not meant to keep up with the demands of modern chaos and chronic stress. To operate optimally there must be balance, and there must be a consistent, conscious effort to maintain that balance.

So thank you, Hypothalamus. Instead of blaming you, we will figure out some ways to support and manage the stress response and ideally, for many of us, decrease the stressors that are perceived to begin with!

What are the different kinds of stressors?

A lot of time, “stress” is thought of primarily as a mental/ emotional state. “I’m so stressed out!” While that is certainly stress, it is important to note that it can also come in physical (eg. gut infection, excessive exercise, etc), and chemical (eg. toxin exposure from food, water, air, etc.) form.

Stressors that activate the HPA Axis can be grouped into two main categories: internal stressors and external stressors, and within each are actual (real, without the variable of an individuals interpretation) and perceived stressors (determined by an individuals interpretation of the factor or situation). Becoming aware of where your stressors come from is an important starting point to support or restore HPA Axis function.

Internal Stressors:

Internal stressors are those that orient from inside the body. Some may be considered actual, such as a metabolic imbalance, or perceived, such as a negative thought about oneself. Let’s take a look at some additional examples:

External Stressors:

External stressors are those that orient from a source outside of the body. They occur independent of what is happening in your body. Just like internal stressors, external stressors may be grouped into actual stressors, such as physical abuse, and perceived stressors, such as work pressure. Let’s take a look some additional examples:

ALL the above stressors (and more) are detected by the hypothalamus to then activate the HPA Axis to release some level of cortisol. Stress is everywhere, all the time, so one could imagine how adrenal- cortisol issues could be a chronic thing, right?

The reality is, stress is impossible to get away from. Our bodies are actually meant to deal with stress, hence why we have this very intricate stress response to keep us safe. BUT, it is the all-too-common long term excess of stress without management that creates the issues.

So, WHAT can you do about it?

Step 1 is: ASSESS. See where you’re at! If you don’t know what kind of stressors you are dealing with, and where they are coming from, it will be really hard to manage them to support or restore your HPA axis function.

So, let's get to it! Complete an Audit on your HPA- Axis Stressors. Follow the directions on the form to determine your biggest areas of stress. It may be jarring, but look at it as an opportunity to check in with yourself, and to make shifts where needed to maximize your potential in health and life!


Let me know how you did! What are your biggest areas of opportunity? What are your plans going forward to support or restore your stress response? I’m here for you in the comments, via email and on Instagram.


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