Traditional Wisdom

Why You Should Understand ‘Allostatic Load’

This functional medical term, and the associated biochemistry, isn't that complicated, but it's important
BY Ashley Turner TIMEFebruary 6, 2022 PRINT

Are you stressed?

The word “stress” can be ambiguous. In the functional medicine world, the wear and tear on the body is referred to as “allostatic load.” This load is the sum total of all sources of stress in our lives and their impact on the brain and body.

Homeostasis and Allostasis

Homeostasis and allostasis were intense areas of study by neuroendocrinologist Bruce McEwen. He studied the environmental and psychological effects of stress for a couple of decades. In fact, he coined the term allostasis, a term used to describe the body’s ability to remain stable amid stress.

You may notice the similarity between the words allostasis and homeostasis. These terms are analogous because they are intimately related to each other. Homeostasis is when the body is in a physiological state of balance. Allostasis describes the body’s appropriate response to a challenge around us—either external or internal.

Homeostasis is achieved through the production of mediators such as adrenalin, cortisol, and other chemical messengers within the body. These mediators are involved in the body’s response to stress and promote the body’s ability to achieve normalcy after exposure to acute stressors. However, these mediators (adrenalin, cortisol, etc.) also contribute to allostatic overload, the wear and tear on the body and brain that result from being “stressed out.”

It’s important to understand the framework of allostatic load in order to understand the body’s stress response, how to maneuver through stressful circumstances, and minimizing overactivity of the body’s stress response. Overactivity of the body’s stress response, or allostatic overload results in many of the common diseases of our time. Becoming familiar with the idea of allostatic load can help conceptualize the protective as well as damaging effects of the brain and body’s attempts to cope with the stressors it comes in contact with.

Understanding the Fight or Flight Mechanism

Our body was designed with mechanisms to respond to stress. When we’re exposed to some sort of stress, the amygdala portion of the brain initiates a response to prepare the brain and the body for danger by sending a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system. This is done by signals traveling through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. The adrenals respond by releasing the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As epinephrine circulates through the body, a number of physiological changes occur.

These bodily responses may include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Increased insulin
  • Increased cholesterol
  • Dilated pupils
  • Pale or flushed skin
  • Muscle tension or trembling

The immune system goes into “emergency mode” and pro-inflammatory cytokines are released to respond to potential injury. This response is a blessing, and what we want to happen when we’re faced with acute danger. It allows our body to have the fuel and tools needed to either fight danger or flee from it. The problem is that we’re chronically exposed to stressors in our culture today. It can be work-related stress, relational stress, long work hours, hectic commutes, whatever it may be, the stressor initiates this same “fight to flight” response within the body. When we’re chronically exposed to the stressor, the fight-or-flight response is happening on a regular basis. This is a significant burden to the body and what we call allostatic load. This can be dangerous for the body and brain because oftentimes we’re not even aware of this burden or allostatic load on our body. Becoming aware of the potential load upon our bodies is the first step in removing it. Second, it’s important to make appropriate choices to turn off the constant stress response our bodies likely find themselves in.

Contributors to Allostatic Load

In order to reduce the allostatic load or stressors on the body, we must know where they come from. It’s important to understand that there are different kinds of stressors, including physical, emotional, spiritual, chemical, nutritional, and traumatic.

The following contribute to the allostatic load on the body:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor diet
  • Food sensitivities
  • Toxin exposure including heavy metals, chemicals, mold, etc.
  • Infections
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Over-training
  • Lack of exercise
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Unhealthy relationships
  • Emotional trauma
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
  • Lack of boundaries or margin in life

Results of Allostatic Overload

According to McEwen and a plethora of research on the impacts of stress, the results of being chronically stressed as well as being in a perpetual state of allostatic overload contribute to a myriad of health concerns. Some of these include:

  • Increased systemic inflammation
  • Increased risk of chronic disease
  • Immunosuppression
  • Accelerated aging
  • Increased risk of anxiety and mood disorders
  • Brain function dysregulation
  • Increased risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke
  • Obesity
  • Loss of minerals from the body

Reducing the Allostatic Load

Resilience is a key term in understanding how to reduce the body’s allostatic load. Resilience is anything that helps take allostatic load from the body and help it return to a relaxed state.

Reduce the allostatic load through:

  • Getting quality sleep
  • Eating a clean, nutrient-dense diet
  • Exercise
  • Identifying and correcting nutrient deficiencies
  • Identifying and clearing infections
  • Identifying and removing food sensitivities
  • Reducing toxins in your environment, including personal care and household cleaning products
  • Drinking clean water
  • Taking part in regular mindfulness and/or prayer
  • Cultivating life-giving relationships and social support
  • Expressing gratitude for the gifts in your life
  • Developing a sense of purpose

If not corrected, allostatic load can transition to allostatic overload if the stressors become chronic. This means symptoms and illness can appear. In some circumstances, permanent damage can occur. It’s important to note that everyone has different capacities for stress in their lives. When considering “stress management,” it’s important to look at all the potential stressors on the body.

At our functional medicine focused practice, we help our patients identify factors that may contribute to their allostatic load such as food sensitivities, leaky gut, environmental toxin and mold exposure, infections such as Lyme or Candida, nutrient deficiencies, and others. Finding a doctor who takes an integrative, holistic approach can help you resolve these issues to achieve optimal health and wellness.


Ashley Turner
Dr. Ashley Turner is a traditionally trained naturopath and board-certified doctor of holistic health for Restorative Wellness Center. As an expert in functional medicine, Dr. Ashley is the author of the gut-healing guide “Restorative Kitchen” and “Restorative Traditions,” a cookbook comprised of non-inflammatory holiday recipes.
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