Skip to main content

What is allostatic load and allostasis?

Beneath the seemingly idle surface of your body, thousands of processes occur every day. A constant struggle exists between catabolism and anabolism, or health and decay.


These two opposing forces are fighting for supremacy and their war begins from the moment we are born.


Let’s take an in-depth look at these opposing forces and what they mean for us.


The Body Is Constantly Striving For Balance


Similar to a thermostat device, the body prefers to be within a specific state and actively fights to achieve and maintain it. Core body temperature is one fantastic example of that. 


Average body temperature is around 36.5 °C (97.7 °F), but external and internal factors like exposure to heat or cold, metabolic activity, and hormones can tip the scale in one direction or the other. 


So, through various mechanisms, the body fights to achieve and maintain equilibrium. These efforts are also known as allostasis, which research defines as the process of maintaining homeostasis through the adaptive change of the organism’s internal environment to meet perceived and anticipated demands.


In other words, living organisms are incredible machines capable of adapting to various circumstances. Allostasis is dynamic and strives to maintain stability through change. 


For instance, if you lift weights and impose stress on your muscles, your body will respond by becoming stronger and more muscular. The goal is to better handle the same type and magnitude of stress the next time around.


If the body cannot adapt and overcome, decay and disease occur, health worsens, and sometimes even death follows.


The Role of Stress In The Equation


We are certainly not made of glass, and bodily tissues can withstand a lot of stress over the years. The issue is, stressors have a cumulative effect – things we might be able to handle at the moment could lead to breakdown a few years down the road.


The wear and tear we experience is something our immune system has to repair for, you guessed it, our organism to maintain balance.


What about perception? Well, one interesting idea from a couple of decades ago suggests that stress doesn’t impact everyone the same, and unique factors like genetics can predispose a person to over-react to given life situations. Research also points to how we perceive life events can determine how these things stimulate our stress-response and subsequently affect our health. 


When the mind perceives something as stressful, it triggers a physiological response that leads to allostasis and adaptation.


What Else Does Allostatic Load Affect?


In the simplest of terms, allostatic load is the wear and tear the body experienced by being exposed to acute and chronic stressors. While we certainly need more research to understand how it impacts us on a deep physiological level, there are three major categories where it plays a role: 


Research has established a close link between allostatic load and cortisol release into the bloodstream. Research also finds that cortisol elevation can be used as a predictor of hippocampal atrophy later in life.


It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that it would impact numerous other health and aging aspects.


Disease and Metabolism


Chronic stress is linked to a whole host of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and depression.


Given that our psychological and physical health are tightly connected, allostatic load inevitably affects our health, risk of disease, and metabolic activity.


Take Good Care of Yourself: It Pays Off

It’s our responsibility to take better care of ourselves. While the adverse effects of stress might not seem too important for the moment, their effects compound and can lead to all kinds of problems down the road.


One good way to get started is to try different stress management techniques, including deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and aerobics.


Taking better care of your nutrition might also help bring a sense of fulfillment, improve your mood, and help you respond better to external stressors.


And finally, make sure to get a good night’s sleep. General guidelines recommend getting at least seven hours per night. If possible, aim for eight.