Welcome to Part 2 of Chapter 22 of Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health & Life, in which you’re going continue to discover the two ways your brain breaks, and exactly what you can do about it. If you missed Part 1 you can click here to read it now.
As you learned in the first part of chapter, there are two ways your brain can break: neurotransmitter imbalances and HPA axis dysfunction.
You already learned 8 ways to fix neurotransmitter deficits and imbalances. You’re about to learn 4 ways to fix HPA axis dysfunction. If you pay attention to and implement all these fixes, then your brain will be 100% “tuned” – and you’ll be prepared for mental and physical performance breakthroughs, not to mention enhanced motivation, decreased distractions and a better mood.
What Is HPA Axis Dysfunction?
The HPA axis includes three specific parts of your body:
1) the hypothalamus (part of your forebrain);
2) the pituitary gland (just below the hypothalamus);
3) the adrenal glands (at the top of the kidneys).
These three parts work together to regulate functions such as stress response, mood, digestion, immune system, drive, metabolism and energy levels. Before understanding how to fix your HPA axis, it’s important to understand how the axis works in the first place, so let’s dive into the specific chemicals utilized by your HPA axis.
1. Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone (CRH)
Also referred to as corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), this hormone is produced and secreted by the hypothalamus in response to stress, and it then stimulates your pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone. The more stressed your body is (from diet, lifestyle, work, or anything else) the more CRH your hypothalamus will churn out.
2. Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH)
ACTH is released by the pituitary gland, and travels to your kidneys to stimulate the adrenal glands to increase production of glucocorticoids.
The glucocorticoids produced in the adrenal glands are steroids that are necessary regulating metabolic rate, inflammation and immune response. You’ve already learned about the most notorious glucocorticoids: cortisol.
Cortisol is best known for activating our physical response to stress, including injury, lack of sleep, excessive exercise, anxiety, and depression. It prepares your body to withstand these stressful triggers by stimulating norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) to active your fight-and-flight reaction.
It’s important to understand is that your HPA axis operates on feedback loops. A feedback loop occurs when the output of a system in your body somehow loops back to that system as input, and influences its functioning. A positive feedback loop would increase that system’s output, and a negative feedback loop would decrease it.
So let’s take a look at how a feedback loop would take place in the HPA – in this case with regards to cortisol. At the same time that cortisol activates your fight and flight stress response, it also sends a signal back to your hypothalamus to inhibit CRH production and your pituitary gland to inhibit ACTH. In this feedback loop, cortisol is also able to reduce norepinephrine activity, gradually calming you down and creating a well-functioning checks-and-balances system (3).
In healthy, low-stress individuals this entire HPA axis feedback loop works in harmony. But when cortisol and norepinephrine are chronically overproduced, the HPA axis eventually becomes desensitized to the negative feedback telling it to “calm down”, leading to chronic stress on the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands. Eventually, this leads to the neural failure that eventually causes all the nasty adrenal fatigue issues you learned about in Chapter 6, Chapter 7 and Chapter 8, and it is called HPA axis dysregulation (5).
Interestingly, HPA axis dysregulation is 100% linked to the neurotransmitter imbalance issue you learned about earlier in this chapter. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor anti-depressants can actually be very effective at treating panic issues. This is because as as serotonin levels rise, levels of norepinephrine fall. Of course, as you also learned earlier, this is not the best way to treat stress, since you’ll simply need more and more anti-depressants as time goes on, and your body becomes desensitized to serotonin (2). But it is a good way to point out the fact that as your neurotransmitter production becomes enhanced, you become more equipped to fix HPA axis dysfunction.
Below are 4 additional ways that you can fix HPA axis dysfunction.
4 Ways To Fix HPA Axis Dysfunction
Fortunately, you’ve already learned in previous chapters just about everything that you need to know about the 4 ways to fix HPA axis dysfunction. Below you will find a quick review. If you address each of these 4 components, your neural feedback loops will be balanced.
I like to think of myself as “stress selfish”. In other words, I guard my brain fairly intensively when it comes to shielding it from stress. I go to bed several minutes earlier than necessary so that when I wake up, I don’t need to bolt upright out of bed and rush to my first task. If work gets extremely stressful and I find myself shallow breathing, I go for a walk, or even go lie on the bed, the floor or a couch and do several minutes of deep breathing. I purposefully avoid speaking with people from whom I get “negative energy”. All these little steps add up to protected my HPA axis.
So what else can you do to destress?
Flip back to Chapter 7. There you will see a big list of all the various daily stresses that can disrupt the HPA axis, from scheduling stress to relationship conflicts to poorly designed training equipment or subpar training conditions.
In Chapter 9, (The 7 Best Stress-Fighting Weapons That Will Make Your Mind-Body Connection 100% Bulletproof) you learn that breathing, meditation, tai chi, yoga, coherence, a hobby and high quality sleep are all extremely effective ways to de-stress.
Go back and review those two chapters. Take stress seriously. Do not abuse your body, and your brain will thank you.
2. Avoid Excessive Exercise
Overtraining is one of the quickest paths to HPA Axis dysfunction, and leads to many of the brain fog, mood and irritability issues experienced by many athletes, especially endurance athletes.
In my podcast interview with Dr. Sara Gottfried “The Cost Of Being A Bad-Ass – How To Cure Your Hormones With Dr. Sara Gottfried“, Dr. Sara explains how excessive exercise chronically elevates cortisol levels, and tells you what you can do about it. I spell all this out in detail in Chapter 6, Chapter 7 and Chapter 8.
If you’ve created high cortisol levels from high amounts of exercise, revisit those chapters. Follow the recovery protocols, and also consider supplementation with Chinese Adaptogenic Herbs such as TianChi or InnerPeace, high electrolyte intake, preferably with liquid trace minerals or Himalayan sea salt, 2,000 to 5,000 milligrams of a whole foods Vitamin C source, and 4-6g per day of a good fish oil that preferably contains vitamin E with mixed tocopherols.
I also recommend you check out the Pacific Elite Fitness Hormone Pack, which I personally designed as a means of promoting hormone stabilization and hormone balance in a gentle and natural manner, without the use of pharmaceutical or synthetic hormone replacement therapy. It is comprised of a bottle of trace liquid minerals, a bottle of fish oil, and a box of Chinese Adaptogenic Herbs. If you’ve been engaged in excessive exercise, this can help bring your HPA axis back into balance.
When I wake up with a “fuzzy brain” (which can happen after a late night out, too much alcohol, or getting sleep disrupted during the night), one of the first things I do is pop 1000mg of curcumin from Phenocane, which can rapidly shut down inflammation and mitigate the effect of a poor night’s sleep on the HPA axis. This is because curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory.
Decreasing inflammation is a potent HPA axis protecting and repair strategy. In mice, researchers have experimented with a protein involved in inflammation in the hypothalamus called NF-kB. When NF-kB is switched off in the hypothalamus of the mice, they lived about 20% longer (6). On the flip side, increasing NF-kB not only accelerates aging, but also decreases an important another important brain protein called GnRH. When GnRH is turned down, fewer new brain cells are created, and aging is accelerated even more (1).
This is just one example of how inflammation can affect the HPA axis. Elevated cortisol levels can also cause systemic inflammation (and vice versa), which further aggravates the HPA axis.
As you learned in Chapter 8, maximizing intake of anti-inflammatory foods and minimizing pro-inflammatory foods is just one step toward controlling inflammation, and from fish oil to cold thermogenesis to pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, there are a couple dozen other strategies in that chapter that will decrease inflammation. Most of those anti-inflammatory protocols work not only on the muscles, but also on the HPA axis.
In Chapter 7, “The Last Resource You’ll Ever Need To Get Better Sleep, Eliminate Insomnia, Beat Jet Lag and Master The Nap” you learn that the only time your body actually repairs neurons and nerve cells is when you are sleeping – especially during deep sleep stages that occur as your body temperature decreases between 2am and 6am.
So if you’re attempting to fix your HPA axis and you’re not getting quality sleep, then you’re never going to fully recover and repair.
As a matter of fact, because of the crucial role that sleep plays in the health of your nervous system, getting adequate sleep is the single most important strategy you could ever implement for fixing your brain and enhancing your mental function.
Even if you incorporate all of the biohacks you’ll learn about in the next chapter, you’re never going to experience 100% optimal nerve and brain performance if you aren’t sleeping properly – and this is all the more true the evening of any day you’re doing hard workouts. In the same way that you need to be selfish with stress, you need to be selfish with sleep.
At this point in your reading, you shouldn’t be surprised by the four best strategies to fix your HPA axis: de-stress, avoid excessive exercise, shut down inflammation and sleep (Holtorf). You saw these strategies in the recovery chapter too – and there’s a reason for that: the more you break down the body the more fragile your brain becomes.
All four of the fixes you’ve just learned about are interrelated and codependent, and if you get each of them dialed in, your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal feedback loops will work with wonderful efficiency.
In the next chapter, you’re going get an amazing array of tools, tricks and tips to tune your mind, hack your brain, boost your IQ, enhance your focus and instantly get into the coveted, effortless zone of peak performance.
In the meantime, leave your questions, comments and feedback below!
LINKS TO PREVIOUS CHAPTERS OF “BEYOND TRAINING: MASTERING ENDURANCE, HEALTH & LIFE”
Part 1 – Introduction
-Preface: Are Endurance Sports Unhealthy?
Part 2 – Training
–Chapter 4: Underground Training Tactics For Enhancing Endurance – Part 1
–Chapter 4: Underground Training Tactics For Enhancing Endurance – Part 2
–Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 1: Strength
–Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 2: Power & Speed
–Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 3: Mobility
–Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 4: Balance
Part 3 – Recovery
Part 4 – Nutrition
Part 5 – Lifestyle
Part 5 – The Brain
-Chapter 21: Two Ways Your Brain Breaks And Exactly What You Can Do About It – Part 1
-Chapter 22: Two Ways Your Brain Breaks And Exactly What You Can Do About It – Part 2
1. Bernard, D. (1999). Photoperiodic effects on gonadotropin-releasing hormone (gnrh) content and the gnrh-immunoreactive neuronal system of male siberian hamsters. Biology of Reproduction, 60(2), 272-276.
2. Carmine M. Pariante, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London Depression, stress and the adrenal axis. The British Society for Neuroendocrinology, 2003.
3. Engelmann M, Landgraf R, Wotjak C (2004). “The hypothalamic-neurohypophysial system regulates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis under stress: an old concept revisited.”. Front Neuroendocrinol 25 (3-4): 132–49.
4. Holtorf, K. (2008). Diagnosis and treatment of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (hpa) axis dysfunction in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (cfs) and fibromyalgia (fm). JOURNAL OF CHRONIC FATIGUE SYNDROME, 14(3), 1-14.
5. MacHale SM, Cavanagh JT, Bennie J, Carroll S, Goodwin GM, Lawrie SM (November 1998). “Diurnal variation of adrenocortical activity in chronic fatigue syndrome”. Neuropsychobiology 38 (4): 213–7
6. O’Neill, J. (1997). Nf-kb: a crucial transcription factor for glial and neuronal cell function. Trends in Neuroscience, 20(6), 252-258.