The Physiology of Stress

By Dr. Rajiv Laroiya

In the body, the stress response is mediated by the hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary axis, or the HPA-axis for short.

When the body perceives stress, the HPA axis, along with the sympathetic nervous system, famous for its “fight of flight” response, are activated together.

Although the stress response is helpful and necessary when dealing with short lived stressors, issues result when the perceived stress remains sustained over a period of time. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) tends to dominate over its counter balance, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). As a result, the individual has difficulty settling back down to their normal physical and emotional state, even if the perceived stress is subsequently removed. Chiropractic care can aid in normalizing sympathetic nerve function.

The HPA-axis is responsible for releasing a hormone known as cortisol, most commonly known as the stress hormone. Cortisol has many diverse physiological functions that occur throughout the body, such as suppressing immune function, increasing blood glucose levels, and breaking down different body tissues. When the stressor is removed, cortisol levels drop and the body returns to its normal level of activity.

Problems result, however, if the perceived stress is not removed. Unless the body has a chance to recover, the effects of stress hormones tend to accumulate and build up. Chronic stress can cause result in either an over activation or an under activation of the HPA axis, depending on the individual. Over activation of the HPA axis may result in increased and sustained levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This in turn can result in a variety of symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Lowered immune response
  • Altered reproductive function
  • Elevated cholesterol levels
  • Elevated triglyceride levels
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Insulin resistance
  • Fatigue
  • Impaired memory
  • Central obesity
  • Loss of muscle tone and protein wasting
  • Bone mineral loss and impaired injury recovery.

In addition, people under stressed emotional states tend to have cravings for sweeter, higher fat foods and more energy dense meals. Without a corresponding increase in physical activity, these individuals tend to experience weight gain as a result.

Alternatively, the other type of stress response that an individual may experience is an under activation of the HPA axis. Symptoms associated with this state may include:

  • An increased risk of autoimmune diseases
  • An increased risk of inflammatory conditions
  • Apathy
  • Malaise/fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Reduced libido
  • Weight loss
  • Poor, restless sleep
  • Chronic pain
  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • An inability to carry out routine tasks.

If the stress continues unabated, the body can actually experience adrenal fatigue, where the body can no longer deal adequately with the perceived stress. Commonly known as burnout, the body’s ability to respond to any stress becomes compromised.

Although eliminating stress form one’s life may be the most desired objective, it is not always practical. There are strategies that one may employ to deal with stress. In addition to getting adequate levels of physical activity, restful sleep and eating a well balanced diet, supplementation with adaptogens such as Prime One can be an effective strategy to help mitigate the deleterious effects of stress.

Author Bio: Dr. Rajiv Laroiya, B.Sc., D.C., F.I.C.P.A., is the Clinical Director of 2 Wellness Centers in Calgary Alberta. He is a Fellow of the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association, and many families across the nation have benefited from his treatments. In addition, he is a Consulting Expert for The Adaptogens for Life Group. For more information about health and stress and what to do, visit us at: and

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