The Allostatic Load: Overfilling the Cup

By: Emma Forbes

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The human body is indisputably a remarkable thing. We have only scratched the surface of what our bodies are capable of doing. Among the many processes our bodies go through, homeostasis is one of the most important. Homeostasis is our body’s ability to find balance and regulate itself to continue functioning.

Thermoregulation is one example of this. If we are too hot, our brain knows and therefore sends signals to the rest of the body to begin cooling down. We are also able to regulate our Ph factor through respirations and the buffer system of the kidneys. Another facet of homeostasis that has been recently discussed more and more is the process that the body undertakes to regulate stress. This is the process of allostasis.

Stressed Out

Stress is one of those words that has a negative connotation. The first things that usually come to mind are tense shoulders and traffic jams. However, we need stress and more importantly, our bodies need to be able to react appropriately to stress in order for us to survive.

Image result for chasing caveman

The human body has not changed much in the last 3000 years. Sure we might be taller and may live longer than our ancestors, but physiologically we are pretty much identical. What has changed over time is the environment in which humans live and the types of challenges we face. Back in the days when we lived in caves when a challenge arose such as a giant animal trying to eat us, we faced stress. Our heart rates rose, respiration quickened, and blood vessels constricted to make sure that we could rise to the challenge and survive the encounter. Periods like this are called acute stress.

We would face the challenge, overcome it, and then go on about our day. This is called allostasis. In the modern world, very rarely do we find ourselves in acute stress situations where we faced with the possibility of death. Instead, we are stressed at work, in traffic, with our kids, etc. These periods of stress do not just come and go. This causes us to have chronic stress. Over time these stressors add to our allostatic load.

Allostatic Load and Overfilling the Cup

Image result for cup overflowing

Physiologically, our bodies react the same way to a tiger chasing us as it does to a particularly exciting period of playing video games. Cortisol releases in the body as well as other chemicals called proinflammatories that aid the immune system if we were to get injured. When we experience the fight or flight response our bodies are flooded with hormones and chemicals to heighten our physical capabilities. If something is chasing us, we inevitably work out these hormones through the physical activity of running or fighting. If however, we are just staring at a TV screen when we experience this response, these chemicals don’t have a way to work themselves out of the body. So instead of doing what the body released them to do they harm our bodies and often manifest themselves in certain kinds of diseases.

The allostatic load is the amount of stress our bodies can handle before things start breaking down. You can visualize it as a cup. Did you get stuck in traffic? The cup gets filled a bit. Did you get yelled at by your boss? The cup fills a bit more. Soon all of these little things add to the allostatic load and our cups are overfilled. We get that burnt out feeling. We may even get sick as our body’s immune systems are weakened.

Emptying the Cup

So how do we empty the cup? The two best ways are through exercise and regular sleeping habits. Exercise lets us use the chemicals that are flowing throughout the body as they were intended. Exercise mimics what we do to fight or escape a dangerous situation. However, too much exercise can also add to the Allostatic load. Which is why sleep is so important.

Polyphasic sleeping has been shown to greatly reduce the allostatic load. Sleep itself is the body’s time to rest and rebuild itself. Polyphasic sleep lets us take frequent breaks from the chaos to let our bodies recharge. But like all sleeping habits you must stick to a regular schedule.

Stress Cup Size Chart

It’s also important to realize when our cups are full. It’s easy to know when we’re hot or cold but it can sometimes be difficult to realize when we’ve just had enough and need to step back from a situation to calm down. Doing things like exercise and sleeping right can also make our allostatic cups bigger. This is called resiliency. And resiliency is key to surviving this age of chronic stress.