Understanding Allostatic Load
Allostatic Load is the long-term wear and tear of the stress response. Understanding Allostatic Load is essential as it is a measure of how stress impacts each of us. It also allows us to predict what our health will be like in the next half a decade.
An increase in allostatic load directly impacts the damage that stress is inflicting and that is why we need to be concerned.
Why is Allostatic Load fatal?
The process of “Allostasis” is being studied for the past 15-20 years and it means achieving stability in the midst of change. It helps to analyze how the stress circuits of the brain operate. Our brain’s fear center “the amygdala” is responsible to trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response when we meet with an emergency or life-threatening situation.
Now, stress is good and positive in such situations as it helps us to respond to emergencies. For instance, the instinct to run when we encounter a poisonous snake, or the need to win while playing a sport. This form of stress i.e., acute stress could save our life and generally goes away when the situation goes away.
The problem arises when we are stuck in our body’s emergency response mechanism. The never-ending stress which we live and deal with every day is chronic stress. As per experts, this form of stress is responsible for 80% of all our sicknesses and shortens our life.
During our routine work, it is very easy for us to get into a state of allostatic load. The long hours. the security-threat situation easily triggers this response. The key to understanding allostatic load is to apprehend the fact that we are not necessarily aware that we are stuck in allostatic load and this is what makes it fatal.
Effects of high allostatic load:
Allostatic load in the long run is a silent killer. It causes several complications in human life and sometimes costs the life itself. Understanding allostatic load is important because it leads to:
- Hypertension and Heart diseases.
- Immune system malfunctioning.
- Depression and other mental health complexities.
- Reduced life expectancy.
Stress affects how our brain functions up to the level of affecting our genes. Hence, it is not only harmful to us but is degenerating for our successors. It creates a vicious cycle of stress leading to sickness, which in turn requires medications (preferably, antibiotics), further weakening our immune response and leading again to a prolonged period of illness and ultimately more stress.
How does Understanding Allostatic Load help?
Homeostasis is a self-adjustment mechanism where a body adjusts its internal environment in response to changes in its surroundings. For instance, sweating during a tough workout to cool the body temperature down. An absence of such a mechanism may lead to imbalances and improper body functioning. Allostasis is related to homeostasis in a way that in absence of either of them, our body is unable to move to a normal setting as it is no longer aware of what the setting was.
A brain that has adapted to survive in a stressful environment may not have the required know-how to adapt back to a normal state. Moreover, a higher allostatic load makes it harder to come back to homeostasis. Allostatic load depends on:
- Life Experiences
- Emotional/Behavioral Responses.
Understanding allostatic load is crucial because too much cortisol (a hormone released during stressful situations) can shrink our brain size, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Stress weakens the hippocampus and in turn, weakens our ability to control stress. The direct relationship between various systems of our body is studied in psychoneuroimmunology. It shows how the nervous system affects the endocrine system which directly impacts the immune system.
Ways to manage the load:
Evidently, as marked by Lou Holtz, it’s not the load that breaks us down, it’s the way we carry it. We need to find a way to-
- to be aware of it
- and to turn it off.
Allostatic load could be turned off in the following ways:
- Balanced diet: As basic as it sounds, eating right at the right time is the solution to most human problems. A healthy and balanced diet helps control stress levels.
- Sufficient sleep: A sound sleep of 7-8 hours helps charge our system and reduces stress.
- The allostatic response should be to reduce/lower the demands on the system.
- Resilience: Anything that helps us turn off allostatic load and bring us back to a more relaxed state. For instance; social support, physical exercise, meditation, sense of meaning and purpose in life.
The resultant waste produced when the environment around us changes and we are not able to cope with it is known as allostatic load. It bundles up chronic stress with everyday stress and creates a situation of trouble and turmoil throughout the body. This stress if left unchecked, leads to serious physical and mental health disability and shortens the length of human life.
However, there’s always a way out. The way starts with identifying the abnormal amount of stress that our body is into. Once the load is identified, we need to begin at step 0, i.e., to improve our eating habits and sleep patterns. After achieving this, the working mechanism of the body needs to be relaxed by putting it under less strain. Furthermore, resilience, physical exercise, and social and professional support also help to balance the hormones and stress levels.
Conclusively, all the body and mind need at times is to let go and just relax. It could be the most productive thing we do when feeling overwhelmed. Constant and chronic stress is not just a phase, but a habit. One which needs to be corrected and cured as soon as possible before it causes any further irreparable damage.