October’s blog is a little later than I planned. The last month has been one of those times in life where unexpected stuff happened, not necessarily in a good way, and I was struggling to come up with any creative ideas. This is what happens when we’re pre-occupied with something that feels dangerous (we never come up with the good ideas, sitting at our desks, white knuckled, heart racing from the extra shot lattes, panicking about a deadline), and it got me thinking about stress. How unpleasant it is to feel stressed, and how incredibly bad it is for our health.
I want to talk to you today, very briefly, about something called the HPA axis. Sounds fascinating, I know, but bear with me.
What is this HPA axis? (I hear you ask!)
So, H is the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is a one of the areas of your brain that is concerned with danger. Specifically, in keeping you away from it. Think of the hypothalamus as a slightly nervous receptionist in a hotel. They’ve seen someone suspicious in the foyer, definitely looks like they’re up to no good, so H presses the emergency button.
This sends a message (in reality, a release of a hormone) to P, your pituitary gland. P sits just below our brain and is more ‘middle management’. Doesn’t take much action himself but knows exactly who can sort out the problem. P sends (another hormone) message to A, the adrenal cortex.
The adrenal cortex is the head of security, doesn’t need asking twice, doesn’t ask a lot of questions, but is very keen on action… and floods your system with cortisol.
This is really good for your health… IF you are some kind of prey animal running away from a lion, it’s one of the collection of responses that makes us take action and get ourselves out of there, quickly.
It’s really (really!) bad for our health when its released chronically, over a long period of time, if we’re not switching that HPA axis off.
Stress in an amazing thing, it affects EVERY. CELL. IN. YOUR. BODY
There is no bodily system that isn’t adversely affected by long term cortisol release.
- It ages our cells
- It overworks our cardiovascular system
- It ruins our bone density
- It messes with our immune system
- It gives us joint pain
And as I’ve discussed in the last blog, nothing even needs to be happening. We can be sat on our perfectly comfortable sofa, in our perfectly safe house with our perfectly fine family and just thinking about an unpleasant encounter at work, an onerous task we have to do tomorrow or the overwhelming pile of washing that we should’ve done today is enough to set this chemical reaction going.
So, we end up taking pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs. We have a glass of wine (or 3) to calm down that beating heart, we spend a fortune on face creams and nutritional supplements… and none of it works, because we’re dealing with the wrong end of the chain.
What we need to do is calm down that nervous receptionist, the hypothalamus, and stop H pressing the emergency button.
To do that we need to have a chat with H’s mates, the amygdala and the hippocampus (which I found out this week means ‘sea horse’. I’m great in a pub quiz!)
But in practical terms, what I’m trying to say, is that the very best thing we can all do for our health is to RELAX. Find something that calms you down, makes you feel good or cheers you up. Read a book, go for a walk, watch a film, meet a friend for a cuppa, have a break, have a bath, switch off the news and listen to some music for a bit… I don’t know what you enjoy, but I do know that if you do more of it, your whole body will thank you for it.
… and on that note I’m off to Netflix n’ chill with the dog!