Stress levels are at an all-time high for many Americans. As families across the country prepare to send their kids back to school this month, they face uncertainty about adapting to the new norm and navigating all the changes we'll continue to experience. And as we discuss chronic and ongoing stress, it's prime time to talk about allostatic load and what it can mean for your health and wellness.
An introduction to allostasis
The term gets its name from the allostasis model, a regulatory model based on the idea homeostasis (error-correction by feedback) is inherently inefficient.
Instead, the allostasis model functions on this idea:
"efficient regulation requires anticipating needs and preparing to satisfy them before they arise. The advantages: (i) errors are reduced in magnitude and frequency; (ii) response capacities of different components are matched -- to prevent bottlenecks and reduce safety factors; (iii) resources are shared between systems to minimize reserve capacities; (iv) errors are remembered and used to reduce future errors. This regulatory strategy requires a dedicated organ, the brain."
In 1993, McEwan and Stellar published a new formulation for the relationship between stress and the processes leading to disease. They called it allostatic load.
Okay, we know that's a lot of technical jargon. So let's break down allostasis and allostatic load in the simplest terms.
Allostasis is the body's regulatory response based on its ability to anticipate needs before they arise–as opposed to maintaining a steady state.
And to reiterate the advantages of this model:
- It reduces the amount and frequency of errors
- Bodily systems share resources to maximize efficiency and minimize reserve capacities
- The brain recalls previous errors and uses this information to reduce future errors
Under the homeostasis model, an animal may feel hot so it moves to a cooler environment. With allostasis, the animal anticipates the need to cool off and moves to a cooler area before it heats up.
What is allostatic load?
Now, the concept of allostatic load refers to the toll, or the "wear and tear" on the body as it is exposed to chronic stress. As you can imagine, the more prolonged or chronic the exposure, the greater the load can be.
If your body is in a constant state of anticipating stress or "load" on the body's systems, the allostatic load increases.
As it turns out, an increased allostatic load can come with a multitude of negative mental and physical health consequences.
The consequences of stress
Your body's systems are expected to fluctuate according to external forces–this is normal. But when these external forces become overwhelming, chronic, and long-term, it results in more stress and a heavier allostatic load.
This is important because the consequences of a heavier allostatic load are the same as those of chronic stress.
- Insomnia and other sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Heart disease
- Digestive issues
- Weakened immune system
Repeated or chronic stress results in higher levels of a hormone called Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone or CRH. When this hormone is released, it also results in higher cortisol (the stress hormone) levels.
And we know higher cortisol levels are associated with:
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure
- High blood sugar
Another reason this is important because of its association with the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or the HPA axis.
What is the HPA axis?
The HPA axis plays a critical role in your body's response to stress. In fact, it's typically thought of as the central stress response system. It's made up of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands–each of which play their own important role in managing stress.
And why does this matter?
Repeated or persistent exposure to stress also results in repeated HPA axis activation, which means more stress hormones and the toll it takes on your body being in a near-constant state of "fight or flight."
So, as we work on managing and minimizing chronic stress, we can also minimize the release of stress hormones and the activation of the HPA-axis, and in turn, reducing allostatic load.
Reducing allostatic load
Once you understand the effects of chronic stress, it's no wonder so many people are now focusing on reducing their allostatic load. As you implement stress-management techniques, your allostatic load can lower simultaneously.
So, what can you do to reduce stress on the brain and body?
Here are some of our favorite techniques!
We've talked a lot about meditation and how it's the "gold standard for increasing your mindfulness and awareness." And as you become more mindful and aware, you'll often notice your stress levels lower. In fact, regular meditation can actually change your brain structure over time–really!
If you'd like to get started, check out this post where we share a simple 5-minute meditation.
There's a reason nearly every stress management plan or guide to better health and wellness prioritizes exercise.
The effects of regular exercise are profound. Not only can they improve your physical condition, but the mental effects of exercise are increasingly popular.
Although exercise is a form of physical stress, it can go a long way in reducing mental stress.
The neurochemical basis for this response has to do with how exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Exercise also stimulates the production of endorphins. These act as the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators, and they also explain the "runner's high" you may experience after an aerobic experience.
If you're dealing with chronic stress and you're new to exercising, you'll probably find it most beneficial to begin with gentle aerobic exercise. Something as simple as a 20 or 30-minute stroll through your neighborhood every day can work wonders for your mental and physical health.
Over time, you may begin to experiment with more intense forms of exercise, including high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Just keep in mind, doing too much of this type of exercise can actually increase stress hormones which is why you need to find a balance that works for you.
It's been particularly difficult for many people to maintain a social circle of support this year with physical distancing and isolation rules in place. But it's as important as ever to find ways to connect.
Social support and bonds can play an important role in reducing allostatic load and managing chronic stress. In fact, positive social interaction can play a directly beneficial role with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system, the noradrenergic system, and central oxytocin pathways.
With that in mind, whether it's regular video calls or appropriate outdoor gatherings, look for ways you can stay connected with your friends and family.
If you're still looking for the inspiration you need to quit smoking, here's another thing to add to your list: smokers are associated with higher allostatic loads, particularly those who are anxious to begin with.
There are several different methods to help you quit smoking, and it might take some experimenting to find what works for you.
Here are some of the most common ways to help you resist and reduce the urge to smoke:
- Nicotine replacement therapy (chewing gum, patches, etc.)
- Avoiding triggers
- Replacing smoking with new habits
- Meditation and hypnosis
- Getting an accountability partner
Vagus nerve stimulation
It seems the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation expand every day. They can range from everything from better sleep to enhanced focus to reduced cravings, improved focus, brighter mood, and lower stress levels.
If you're new to the vagus nerve and vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), let's do a quick break down:
The vagus is the 10th cranial nerve, and it’s part of the afferent nervous system. This provides the brain with sensory information and it helps regulate many critical body functions like blood pressure, breathing, and digestion.. It also functions as the information highway from the brain to the heart, airways, lungs, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, and small intestines.
When adequately stimulated, your vagus nerve balances your nervous system by promoting the relaxation response. In turn, it helps with all kinds of things, including mood, calmness, digestion, and sexual arousal.
Now, here's how it comes into play with reducing allostatic load and managing stress: When your ever-vigilant sympathetic nervous system revs up your fight or flight responses (releasing stress hormones), the vagus nerve tells your body to relax by releasing acetylcholine and norepinephrine to balance things out.
Think of this nerve like a fiber-optic cable that sends back instructions to release enzymes and proteins which calm you down.
Xen by Neuvana
For a long time, people turned to invasive measures to stimulate the vagus nerve in hopes of experiencing the benefits of doing so.
Today, there are more accessible ways to stimulate the vagus nerve, including tVNS (transcutaneous VNS). This method uses electrical vagus nerve stimulation through the surface of the skin.
Usually applied via the left ear, directly by the user, tVNS is portable and works quickly. tVNS can be utilized easily to promote and maintain general health and wellness.
With Xen by Neuvana, you can stimulate the vagus nerve from the comfort of your own home.
When you turn on the Xen unit and pair it with the Neuvana App on your smartphone, the left earbud transmits a gentle electrical signal intended to stimulate the vagus nerve. That way, you can get the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation while listening to your music. The Xen stimulation pattern even syncs to your music library, Spotify®, Pandora®, and most other streaming apps.
Researchers are discovering the vagus nerve has a significant impact on a variety of maladies including stress levels. Evidence shows VNS can reduce the impact of stress on sleep, focus, mood, and one’s overall sense of wellbeing. .
Xen isn't a medical device. It's not intended to diagnose, cure, treat, mitigate, or prevent a disease or condition, nor is it intended to alter the structure or function of the body. Xen is for use by healthy adults to promote health and wellness. Click here to check out FAQs and other important information.
Other ways to reduce allostatic load and stress levels
At Neuvana, we're committed to helping you lead a more balanced life with our wellness products.
We also talk about stress and anxiety extensively on our blog to provide you with the most helpful information and a variety of tools and techniques you can use.
Here are some other posts on the subject you won't want to miss: