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Ways to Reset Your HPA Axis & Dramatically Improve Emotional Health

hpa axis brain bw

Our body is a system in which all of the components are designed to work smoothly and in perfect balance with each other.  The same way that one broken part can bring a car to a screeching halt, so can our bodily organs.

The last article was a short introduction to our HPA Axis.  Traditionally viewed as the body’s “stress system”, it controls levels of cortisol and other important stress related hormones.  But often, it too can “brake”.

Like a leaky Fukushima reactor, a disfunctional HPA Axis (aka adrenal fatigue) can slowly intoxicate our system for a period of time, stressing the entire body and mind.  This extended overdrive in the HPA Axis will make you feel amped-up, irritable and cause you to be prone to snapping from a slightest irritant.  What I’d like to share with you now are some effective measures to reset your HPA Axis activity and regain your sense of balance.

If you haven’t read Part 1: What You Need to Know About Your HPA Axis in Order to Manage Irritability More Effectively, go ahead and read it first, things will make better sense.

As you can imagine, turning the volume control down on our HPA Axis is a complex process, and I won’t even attempt to explain how and why some of the following things work well. However, as I learned from my own experience, there are a number of activities, as well as natural supplements, that we can take to help neutralize the stress-related responses and calm down our adrenals and central nervous system.

Things You can Do

As often mentioned here, our body and mind are an extremely intricate and intelligent system, energetically interwoven in an invisible (the the eye) fabric of life. Our mind effects the body and the body effects the mind. This seems rather obvious yet some folks have a hard time “believing” this.

Once over a coffee brake at work my colleague challenged me about this notion. Him being a very simple minded guy, I had to give a simple example so all I said was, “Buddy,  think of the sexiest lady in your life standing naked by your bedroom mirror and gently applying lip gloss right now, and half a second later watch the sensation between your legs.” “You see, a thought gives rise to corresponding physical manifestation in the body. Simple as that.” I think he was pretty convinced after that.

The activities listed below are bound to relax and strengthen your physical body, and subsequently your emotional stamina because they work in the same synergistic way.

Hang out with Nature

HPA axis hang out with nature

As the ancient healing science of Auyrveda and Tibetan Medicine explain, your body (micro-cosm) is a replica of the Universe (macro-cosm), and every aspect of the Universe is represented in the body of an individual in its subtle form. Therefore, any change in the environment affects the body, mind and spirit of the individual. At the same time, every activity of of the individual, through his body, mind and speech will affect the individual and his inner environment.

When you spend time in nature, simply sitting calmly and observing its natural balance and serenity (especially any water elements) your mind very effortlessly synchronizes with the outer environment. Take time out of your daily schedule to observe and spend time with nature, it is the most powerful drug on the planet.

Some naturopaths even offer “grounding” treatment, using a custom made contraption which simulates several waves of electricity found in the earth, and feeds that energy through wires into the stickers placed on our body’s “acupuncture gates.” In simple terms, it is like digging a hole in warm earth and stepping into it to recharge off of earth’s energy.

I remember when I worked at a busy company in Silicon Valley; I would walk down during my lunch hour and just sit by a big beautiful fountain. Just ten minutes of that refreshed and energized me for the rest of my working day. Before you do anything else, I invite you to establish this habit in your life starting today.

Light Exercise with Cardio and Weights

HPA Axis Exercise Vintage

This is a very well-known fact – exercise is your next best friend. Not only it helps to re-balance all that energy we normally carry in our heads, it oxygenates the cells, relaxes the mind, and you get a free dose of happy hormones like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, all produced by the most powerful pharmacist in the universe – your brain.

One note worth mentioning – don’t overdo it. Over-training is one of the quickest ways to overwhelm your HPA Axis (adrenals), which can produce the completely opposite result – brain fog, mood, irritability, and worst of them all – sleep problems. So keep it light and fun.

Stretching

retro yoga

Be it yoga, tai chi or simple stretching exercises – I invite you to implement a routine starting today. Simple stretching combined with harmonious breathing can totally relax you in fifteen  minutes.  Stretching is an awesome relaxation technique, even if you are stiff and inflexible in general.

Yoga, in general, is said to stabilize the response of the nervous system to stress, removing the constant muscular tension produced by the repeated alerts from the central nervous system, and calming the involuntary symptoms of threat (racing heart, sweating, anxiety).

Meditation

meditation vintage

Contrary to what you may read or hear, meditation is not easy. In fact, its damn hard! Well, I should say it is very hard with an overexcited central nervous system. Why? Because you’re trying to balance a wild mind with your…. well, wild mind.

This is only my opinion, but I think you should only start meditating after you’ve done all of the above. Once you employ your body to stabilize the mind, then learn a very simple meditation and focus on the breath (I’ll provide for some simple instructions in the future if you’re interested). 10-15 a day for starters is the best way to go.  Meditation is so powerful I’ll expand on this in great length in the near future.

Nutrition

superfoods bw

One of the fastest ways to support and nourish your exhausted and depleted system is via diet improvement. Look up a previous article called “Happiness Management Diet to Fight Off Anger & Depression”. What you want to focus is on anti-inflammatory food and Omega 3s. Also look into adding a few super-foods to your diet – they carry more nutrients per square inch of matter than most other plant based food.

There is plenty of good stuff online about this so I will not elaborate but again, I invite you to use diet as one of the most important components to support your physical and emotional health. Nothing will work without a proper diet.

Sleep

HPA axis sleep bw

Lack of adequate sleep is one of the major factors contributing to HPA Axis dysfunction and subsequent irritability. Unless you are a yogi, the only time your body does most of the work repairing brain cells is when you are asleep. Fact is, if you want to “fix” your HPA axis issues, you must do whatever it takes to get quality sleep.

What this meant for me was a routine and early bed time. No screens, no exciting movies, a calming routine in the evening and a relaxing book before light out. Obviously, this is not realistic long term with our lifestyles, but do it as much as you can till you feel more balanced again.

Things You Can Take

apothecary for emotional health

Rhodiola Rosea is a cooling adaptogenic herb. This popular herbal remedy for stress is sometimes called golden root, or rosavin. People who show signs of heat such as a red face, high blood pressure and excessive anger may find rhodiola rosea super helpful. It stimulates the release of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.

As herbalist/holistic health practitioner Val Silver explains – adaptogenic herbs (aka tonic herbs), are brilliant gifts from the plant kingdom. This elite group of herbs has the unique ability to enhance the function of body systems in the face of stress and aging. Adaptogens work in a variety of ways assisting the body in maintaining a balance.

This class of herbs can improve your endurance, strengthen the stress compromised immune system, and provide powerful antioxidants. Adaptogens strengthen resistance to mental distress as well as stress from biological, chemical and physical factors.

Herbalists claim Rhodiola Rosea nourishes the HPA axis and promotes adrenal, thyroid and reproductive function. It also protects bodily organs from the negative long-term effects of cortisol by reducing cortisol output during chronic stress.

B Vitamins – well known and widely prescribed as THE supplement to people with chronic anxiety and depression. A good B complex should help with energy levels and support the nervous system.

Omega-3s are those famous Fatty Acids found in fatty fish oil, flax seeds and chia seeds that are well known for their calming effect on anxiety and depression.

L-Theanine – a fat-soluble amino acid which is non-energizing component of green tea. It too helps to ease nervous tension and stress by stimulating the production of alpha waves associated with a calm, relaxed state. It helps produce GABA in the brain that blocks the release of excitatory neurotransmitters. Drink a few cups of green tea a day or take the capsules. Nutritionists recommend taking all amino acids on an empty stomach for better absorption.

GABA – a brain neurotransmitter supplement for stress reduction which is said to keep the nerve cells from over firing by boosting the inhibitory neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. A deficiency in GABA might manifest in anxiety, panic, ‘burn out’ and an inability to relax and is said to work in the same way as prescription meds but without the side-effects of addiction. You can use it temporarily while going through “rough seas” or continue it throughout life.

St. John’s Wort – according to Hippocrates, this herb has a 2,400 year history of use for “nervous unrest”  and is said to work with several of the neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. I use it when I feel agitated but try to limit it for darker winter months as I’ve been cautioned that it may cause photosensitivity to the sun.

Valerian Root, Passion Flower, Hops, and Chamomile are herbs that produce a calming effect either alone or in combination. These must be the all-time favorites through the generations. When I was a kid, a usual scene at our house was my dad sipping on some transparent liquid from a shot glass, while my mom pouring valerian drops into her Chamomile tea.

The links I provided are to what I feel are quality products on Amazon but you should be able to get most of these in your health store. Please keep in mind herbal supplements take (1-12 weeks) before you start feeling any significant  improvements.

Also, please note that I am not a specialist, and you should not blindly take all of these herbs. Please take some time and research these supplements. Follow recommendations for proper use. Consult with a good health care professional, especially if you are already taking some meds and have a medical condition. Please be wise and take this as general advice and always learn about everything inside-out before you put it in your body.

Conclusion

just do it bw

When you combine a good diet and herbal supplements with the activities mentioned above you should be well on your way to a more balanced emotional health and an overall sense of wellness.  However, it is important to have accurate expectations. Living in a society that always expects “quick fixes” it is important to bear in mind that these measures are just a start.

A mere balancing act of the axis will not uproot our deeper seeded anger issues; it will only make them less severe and more functional. Ultimately, the dysfunction of the HPA axis has its causes in what Tibetan medicine calls artificial living.  It is therefore much more imperative to address our lifestyle in a holistic way.

Finally, I’d like to invite you to become a conscious gatekeeper of your mental health. I used to have a lot of excuses for feeling irritated, angry, and exhausted but a few years ago, as part of my spiritual path, I decided to take responsibility for my health as well as mental states.

These days, I guard my mind and body with zealous fervor, even when it means doing less and making less. In other words, I do all I can to keep the body in good condition and protect my brain from stress. If I work hard, I also spend extra time in nature and boost my nutrition. If I had a stressful encounter I take extra antioxidants and do a short yoga in the evening. If I have to process a lot of information in several days I follow it up with a 24 hour low information diet. You get the idea – counter the negative effect with the opposite action to keep things balanced.

If you can get in a habit of caring for your mind, most of the small things that bother you now will seem trivial, maybe even humorous. As a result, you will enjoy more mental space and will be able to apply effective tools in transforming your entire mindset. Best of all, your likability factor will increase ten fold. You’ll be an awesome human being!

If you have any advice or experiences you would like share please do so in the comments. I’d love to hear from you. Meanwhile, I am wishing you all the courage, discipline and patience in the world. You’ll need it.

Additional reading: Optimizing the HPA Axis by Lise Alschuler, ND

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Jess May 22, 2015, 3:33 pm

    Hi – I really appreciate this article. I have been struggling for years trying to find out what is wrong with me. I have been pretty much a hot mess. I have been to numerous therapist, been on anti depressants majority of my adult life and I am only 30. I have struggled severely with fight or flight. Back in 2012 I went to a naturalist and got my neurotransmitters and hormones checked. My cortisol was off the charts, DOPAC was very low, serotonin very high along with histamine and glutamate. He put me on some vitamins and supplements and it seemed to work for awhile but I was still having symptoms. He also thought I maybe going through an early menopause as I was having night sweats before my period would start and the horrible mood swings. I have also suffered with heart issues since I was 18. I would faint if I stood to long. Did the tilt table test and passed out with in 13 minutes. Still having issues with this. My blood pressure drops from laying, sitting to standing and my heart rate goes up. I have been to a few different cardiologist and they put me on low blood pressure medication??? This in itself makes me have panic attacks due to not wanting to pass out in public. I have passed out waiting in lines for books for college, amusement parks and work. No one can seem to really pin point what is causing it but just trying to mask the symptoms. I am now wearing compression stockings for circulation. I get very irritable and angry and lose my temper fast if I don’t get enough sleep or around that time of the month. My PMS symptoms have worsen over the years and I have not been able to get pregnant for about 5 years. I am ovulating but I was told the cortisol is a natural birth control and since my levels are high well… I have been seeing an acupuncture doctor and been on some Chinese medicine to help with my PMS symptoms and it seems to help. I also have ADHD and taking medicine for that as well. I have been angry pretty much my whole life and have everything I need or want and had a decent up bringing. It feels out of my control sometimes and it’s hard for me to hit my breaks. I am doing so much better at it today but it’s been one hell of life not knowing any answers. I am going to do what you recommend above! Thanks again for the article! Makes a lot of sense and answers some questions for me.

    • AM Tadas May 22, 2015, 5:39 pm

      Hi Jess, all I can say – wow. You have your work cut out for you. Sounds like a range of issues that could be interconnected. Which part of the world do you live in? Do you also have Tibetan medicine or Ayurveda in your area? If you do, I would go see some recommended specialists. Every time modern medicine was not providing answers for me I would revert to Eastern medicine and get better eventually. I’ve had some interesting medical issues myself ever since I moved back to Europe. It has to do with liver function, adrenals, cortisol fluctuations and sugar levels. It hit my sleep really bad. I had a range of symptoms you describe too, i.e. moodiness, irritability, short fuse, etc. Needless to say, being an “anger mentor” it made it for an interesting time as I had a chance to put a lot of my own advice to use. All I can say, when our body is so out out balance it makes it extremely difficult to deal with those emotions but what helped A LOT was daily meditation. I was always able to calm down, wrestle things under control and re-focus. Anyways, I’m still under the care of a couple of Eastern medicine specialists and things are improving every day but I put a lot of work into to it – strict diet, strict routine, and meditation. Anyways, if you don’t meditate try QiGong (Chi Gong) or light yoga, all very good systems for re-balancing your energies, but the key is CONSISTENCY. And yes, use the advice from above, my first prescription for you is nature and music! I am serious, there’s research behind it. Take good care of yourself and keep in touch. Warmest wishes, Tadas.

      • Jess May 22, 2015, 6:05 pm

        I appreciate the fast feeback! I sure do have a lot of work cut out for me. I live in the Midwest of the United States. I am not aware if we have any specialist in the area besides Chinese medicine. I am seriously over modern medicine it has failed me more than once. I have also seen a endocrinologist and she said that my levels I did with my naturalist are a joke and I just have PMS. Well my question to her is why, it’s not normal to have it A and B this happens to me even when I am not in a cycle. I was wondering why my histamine levels were so high and I did go to allergist and had no known allergies to food or environment, he then sent me to a dermatologist and I was severely allergic to nickle and gold. I have found that my jeans, the buttons on them are nickle so I have to daily put on clear nail polish over them so it’s not exposed to my skin and I have a list of products I can use that doesn’t contain nickle. I have read that heavy metals or metal intolerance/allergy can cause anger, hostility etc. So that is one thing of my many lists. I do meditate and it does help a lot! It makes me more aware of my emotions and helps me control my thought process. I have read several books about rewiring your brain to think more positive. My biggest trigger is the irritability, I have two dogs and hard wood floors and when trying to sleep and have been sleep deprived…Well lets just say my boyfriend has nick named me the Hulk. He has a lot more patients with the subject then I do of the nails clicking on the hard wood when trying to concentrate on falling asleep. I know I shouldn’t let those little things get to me however my ego kicks in and I think I have the right to be upset because I have worked hard and deserve it.
        I am glad things are approving for you. It’s a daily struggle and I don’t think a lot of people understand that we are just as frustrated with ourselves as our family and friends can be with us and our moods. Which to me makes me more depressed. I do have support and won’t give up on myself because deep down I know I am a genuine compassionate soul with a lot of empathy.
        I love listening to music and I have bought some bird feeders so I can sit outside after a long day in the office and be in nature. I enjoy long walks also. It’s nice to know I am not alone in this journey. Thanks again!

        • AM Tadas May 24, 2015, 5:59 am

          Jess, Midwest should have good options for you with the alt med specialists, especially near larger cities. If the Chinese med person is not answering your questions then keep searching, “the answers are out there” 🙂 I do not know that much about the endocrine system, other than specific topics that I research but as long as we know where to look and who to ask then it’s all that matters. It makes sense that allergies can cause irritability, ergo more anger. Irritability itself is not a problem if our HPA axis of the brain is not overwhelmed but it does become a challenge when we’re dealing with too much, kind of like you are at the present. You know, I can be very irritable too – challenges with having to work from home, an overactive toddler which I love to death, my hypochondriac wife, who is the sweatiest person when she’s not worried about the world crashing down on her, lack of sleep, every day problems with the house and finances… all of that will cause irritability sooner or later, wouldn’t it? So while I feel there is a reason for me to be irritable I threw away the idea that this is my license to justify anger in any way. Actually, I feel my anger is a weakness of not being able to cope with irritability.
          I once heard a very experienced spiritual teacher talk of “transforming” anger and what he said changed my entire attitude. He said, we never really “transform” anger itself, what we transform is our relationship with it. I’ll write more about it in some future article but in short, what he meant was that the anger will always be there but we don’t have to make it too personal and act it out. We simply become more patient, observe it, allow it to play out without clinging to it, and without giving credence to it. This develops the so called “mirror like wisdom” where various mind states and emotions reflect in our mind like a moon in the lake which we’re able to observe and learn from.
          I’m happy to hear you accept yourself as a happy and compassionate soul which is truly all of our essence. All we need to do is to polish that essence and let it shine. 🙂 Let’s be courageous and relentless in seeking that perfection. This is the best investment we can make.

  • sanne April 18, 2016, 6:11 pm

    Hi there, your english is so good wow! Mine is very bad so I apologize.

    I wanted to ask you a question and I hope you can help me a bit in the right direction. I have cfs pretty bad and cant exersice or move a lot. I try to meditate but my mind is racing so much that it is extremely frustrating to me. Is there something I can do when laying on the couch? I have adrenal problems (hpa axis problems) and I dont get in to the slow wave sleep enough which makes my sleep unrefresching to say the least. I try different things like music and sitting outside in the summer and pet my dog, I tried the alpha stim. On better days chi gong and tai chi tao, nothing seems to work.. any advice?

    • AM Tadas April 19, 2016, 12:38 pm

      Oh Sanne, I feel for you so much. I read your comment and it felt as if I wrote it. The reason is that I’ve been dealing with disturbed sleep, insomnia and the fatigue associated with it too. I’ve tried so many supplements I couldn’t even list them. Recently, however, I came across good info about Vitamin B5, which is called Patothenic Acid and its derivative Pantethine. Have you tried it? It brought relief to some of my nastiest symptoms but I overdid it and have to scale back on the dosage until I find what works for me. See if you can find it where you live. I have it shipped from Iherb but it could be available from your local supplement store. Do some research and let me know how you do. Also, learn some Pranayama breathing exercises while laying on the couch. I found this app on Adnroid – Prana Breathing, it’s very good. Also look into JING DEFICIENCY. If you have a good Traditional Chinese Medicine specialist in your area I highly recommend visiting them, they can help you to rebuild your energy. Don’t give up and keep in touch, OK? YOU have to take charge of your health and learn everything you can about your condition, this is the only hope. You’ll get over it eventually if you take good care of yourself.

      • sanne April 20, 2016, 11:39 am

        Thank you so much for your reply!

        I tried B5 in the beginning of ME, but I did not respond, I have to say that I do not respond to synthetic vitamin at all so I am going to try a whole food based B complex.
        I am reading a lot about the HPA axis these days because I have low thyroid en low cortisol/DHEA and all the things that are signs of a HPA axis disfuntion.
        I have found a acupunture so maybe that is going to help? I have all so downloaded the prana breathing app on my phone, it’s called the “prana breath” is that the right one?

        Thank you again for your advice!

        • AM Tadas April 25, 2016, 3:10 pm

          Yes, Sanne, that is the app. Are you working with any specialists about your condition? Initially, I was very reluctant to spend money on this but eventually it got so bad I just didn’t care anymore. Key thing is to keep trying what works for you and get evaluated by different specialists. Most doctors where I live are clueless about this condition but I am able to piece things together myself and find answers. Acupuncture alone might help but you’ll also need correct supplements, herbs and a correct protocol. Then you’ll need to report your progress and adjust. This is the only way to go. I’ve spent thousand self treating this and decided – no more. Basic things still stand however – you need to move and get fresh air, recharge from nature and eat healthy (non acid forming diet). No matter how terrible you feel, it is always very beneficial to get outside and get the body moving, this will give it a change to reset itself eventually. Just do everything in moderation. You’ll get over this, just don’t give up and learn everything you can. Keep in touch.

  • M M January 17, 2017, 6:09 pm

    Thanks for this helpful article! And thanks so much for clarifying that each supplement should be studied and discussed with your doctor for interactions before taking. Just for one example that is common for women taking hormonal birth control pills, St John’s Wort can cause you to metabolize the birth control hormones, reducing the effectiveness of the pill. So don’t take St John’s Wort often if you’re trying not to get pregnant!

    • AM Tadas January 18, 2017, 12:03 pm

      Yep, good point. St. John’s Wort is problematic for folks who are often in the sun, too.

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