Part 3: Heal HPA Dysfunction to Boost Metabolism

Written By


Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

A.a. Milne Copy | Part 3: Heal Hpa Dysfunction To Boost Metabolism

This week we’ve been talking all about the “little known” ways to boost metabolism—the three factors that really contribute to a “slow” or “fast” metabolism that have NOTHING to do with counting calories or running on treadmills.

While a blog may tell you to “boost your metabolism” by “eating 6 small meals per day” or your coach at Orange Theory may yell over the mic to “get into the fat burning orange zone” (so your post-workout metabolism is revving for hours to come), there is MORE to the metabolism story than you’ve been made to believe.

On Day 1, we talked about the importance of your Thyroid Health (your metabolism “governor”) and how an imbalanced (and undernourished) thyroid can result in a “slowed metabolism.”

Day 2, we dug deeper into the importance of a tip-top-shape digestive system and Gut Health (for absorbing and digesting all your great nutrients and energy in the first place).

And today, Day 3 of our series, we’ll examine the impact of your HPA-Axis Balance on your metabolism.

My HPA-What?!

Translation: STRESS.

HPA-Axis & Metabolism 101

Your “HPA-Axis” is the synergy of your Hypothalmus, Pituitary and Adrenal glands that affect nearly every cell and tissue in the body. Your HPA-Axis has a particularly strong influence on the mechanisms that drive inflammation, glucose regulation, and your stress-response—(factors that are involved in the balance and regulation of your metabolism).

Your HPA-Axis is perhaps “most known” for its production and regulation of your steroid hormones, namely cortisol (i.e. your “Stress” hormone).

Cortisol is responsible for regulating and helping you deal with stress.

For instance, if you’re running from a bear, your body spikes cortisol to give you super speed powers to run away from Pooh in the moment.  Cortisol also “goes up” or kicks into gear when you’re working out, walking to your car on a dark street by yourself at night, or when you’re about to give a public speech.

Cortisol can be a GREAT thing for helping your body “fight” instead of “fly” in the face of stress, challenge or doing something new.

So how does your HPA-Axis and cortisol impact your metabolism?

Essentially: If your body is stressed (mentally, physically, emotionally), cortisol levels rise (initially) then (ideally) fall (go down).

However, if you remain stressed or continual stress happens, your HPA-Axis is forced to produce—or try to produce—more cortisol to help you deal with the stress.

Consequently, this also re-directs the “energy flow” and efficiency of the other metabolic processes in your body in order to help you deal with all that stress.

Say for example, you’re really into working out. You’re training for a triathlon, or you just love your spin-class or CrossFit intensity or trail running sessions most days per week. When you’re training, cortisol levels rise to help you deal with the stress—diverting energy away from other things like digestion, cellular restoration or hormone balance. This is all fine and good for the time being, however, if you continue to live in a stressed out state (i.e. overtraining) all the time, without proper recovery (eating enough, varying intensities, getting enough sleep, etc.) your body remains pretty darned stressed, and your cortisol levels are continually challenged to “deal with” helping your body cope and deal with the stress at hand (as best they can).

In short: “Metabolic” energy that is normally devoted to other metabolic processes (and just helping you be human) is put on HOLD or slowed because again, your body (and cortisol) are most concerned with helping you deal with the stress at hand.

A similar situation happens with funky eating habits or unhealthy eating patterns we get ourselves into. Any time our body gets out of balance, a stress response (i.e. spiked cortisol) happens to address the stress. However, if that stress is constant or something you do day in and day out, your cortisol hormones are less balanced, and more concerned in coping with stress. When we under-eat, try to fill ourselves up with diet foods, neglect entire macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins or water), or fill our days with binge-purge cycles, physically, the body gets more stressed and your metabolism becomes less efficient.

Another example: rapid or diet-based weight loss. (Think: Biggest Loser style, gastric-bypass surgery or shedding 5-10 lbs. in one week on juice or grapefruits alone). Any extreme weight loss measure pushes our body to extremes and extremes call for a large pendulum swing in imbalance (and cortisol). While your body initially responds to the night-and-day lifestyle change, you know this is only sustainable for so long. Initially it seems like your metabolism “speeds” up—only to be continually bombarded with the stress of low-calorie dieting, intensive workouts or post-surgery recovery. The result? A “pooped out” or slowed metabolism—because your body (and other metabolic processes) don’t deal with lots of stress well.

And one more: Not sleeping enough, burning a candle at both ends or constantly feeling like you need to be a Stretch Armstrong doll (i.e. Saying “yes” to everyone who asks something of you, or people pleasing). Yes, even factors outside of food and exercise can impact cortisol, which consequently impacts metabolism.

Long-term elevated cortisol levels also have the tendency to “throw off” your body’s glucose regulation and blood sugar balance (cortisol feeds off sugar and caffeine so it uses this up fast and then demands MORE. Couple this with poor gut health and you’re left with more sugar and stimulation in your body than your gut, HPA-Axis and metabolism knows how to deal with it.

And the beat goes on.

The Struggle Is Real

We live in a society that almost guarantees “HPA axis dysfunction” (i.e. chronic stress).

Think about it: Most people you probably know report feeling overwhelmed by the pace of life and the number of demands on their time with phrases like “Life is so busy” as common place as “Hey, what’s up?” We are working 12 to 13 hours more per week than we were in 1968, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics most recent American Time Use Survey reports that Americans continually feel LESS “work-life balance.” Additionally, we’re chronically under-sleeping—with  one-third of Americans getting fewer than six hours of sleep a night.

Couple this with other stressors like the frustration you feel sitting in Austin traffic to feeling FOMO when you see other’s loving their lives on Instagram, hating on your body or rarely taking time for Y-O-U, stress can wreak havoc on your metabolism.

In fact, stress is cited as the #1 reason of all modern disease and body imbalance (no wonder your metabolism seems slower when you’re “trying so hard” to workout more, eat less, or eat the “right foods,” low carb or low fat diet).

What to Do About It

What to do about “fixing your cortisol” or “de-stressing”?

For starters: Don’t go “Googling” cortisol and metabolism.

A newer concept that’s been thrown around a lot lately within health and fitness circles to try to explain what’s going on in your body is “adrenal fatigue”—a concept that states your adrenal glands produce lots of cortisol initially in response to stress, and then stop producing cortisol—completely fatiguing you (and your metabolism) because your body can’t keep up, as well as throwing off your other hormones.

However, this too has led to inaccurate understandings of what is really going on—HPA-Axis Dysfunction.

It has also led people self-diagnosing themselves, believing they no longer produce cortisol to respond to stress, or taking supplements they DON’T need to take in order to “help” their stress”—consequently ending up with MORE stress and imbalances in your body (than less).

(In other words: Don’t believe everything you hear).

In fact, the term “adrenal fatigue” is virtually absent from the scientific literature.

If you search for it in PubMed, you’ll find only about 10 results. While there ARE studies linking high cortisol to restrictive dieting and a slowed metabolism ( and, the reasons why this happens is far more complex than the simple statement: “You have adrenal fatigue”—as the hypothalmus, pituitary AND adrenals are all at play; AND should be addressed accordingly and individually.

Supporting your cortisol and hormone balance is delicate and it is highly recommended you connect with a practitioner who knows about HPA Axis Dysfunction if you suspect stress is throwing you off—especially after lifestyle measures are taken to help you heal.

That said, LIFESTYLE FACTORS are the FIRST PLACE to start with seeing if you can help lighten the stress load on your body.


Meet Dani, a 27-year-old female who initially came to me wanting to figure out why her body was not changing despite her 5-6 day strength and HIIT conditioning workout routine, and a “pretty clean” diet, consisting of protein, veggies and “healthy” monosaturated (“safe”) fats (nuts, olive oil and avocado.

“My hips and legs don’t change and I just want to be a little leaner, and I feel bloated after a lot of meals…I think something is wrong because I am doing everything right,” she told me.

And on paper she was—Working out. Eating “right.” Occasionally sipping green juice and bone broth. Even getting about 7 hours of sleep.

However, peeling back a few layers of the onion, and a couple sessions in, we quickly got to the root of her “slow metabolism” and frustrations with her body.

30-days later, Dani had a whole new outlook on her self-care, decreased bloating and finally feeling “at home” in her skin as some extra body fat she had been holding on to seemingly “disappeared.”

The secret?

Addressing stress.

Dani’s plan looked something like this:

  • Increasing her carbohydrate intake to 2-3 servings of starchy tubers and/or fresh fruits a day
  • Varying her training intensity—pulling back on the HIIT and cardio sessions in favor of weight training and incorporating 1-2 rest days out of the gym
  • Consuming a variety of fats with every meal (adding in saturated fats—like coconut oil, ghee and grass-fed butter; and fatty fish 1-2 times per week, along with a daily cod liver oil supplement)
  • Cutting out coffee for a brief time (she was drinking 2-3 cups or espresso shots daily)

Stress was king, and these slight edge adjustments put years of her war and struggle with food, fitness and her jeans to shame.

Callie’s story is similar—although her metabolic imbalances presented somewhat differently: a disrupted digestive system.

Her metabolism was not in tip top shape because of the following symptoms:

  • Constant Bloating
  • Water Retention
  • Constantly having to go to the bathroom
  • Warm sensation when eating certain foods like grains or sugar
  • Migraines when eating processed foods particularly processed sugar
  • Not having an appetite some days and others not ever feeling full
  • Loose stools after eating most foods particularly heavily processed foods or some restaurants

On top of these unpleasant symptoms, Callie had just launched her social media and marketing business as a solo-preneur and found herself sleeping ALOT less, eating out or sporadically a lot more, and hitting the ground running every single day to the end.

To say the least, her body was SUPER STRESSED and consequently, she felt the side effects with the constant bloating and water retention in particular.

Her secret sauce?

Simple as well: Address stress.

Two weeks into a stress-reduction protocol and Callie was singing different tune.

20-something years of “never feeling good” in her own skin came to a head with a few “slight edge changes.”

Here’s what she did:

  • Cutting out gluten, dairy, sugar and coffee completely
  • Staying consistent with her workout routine (something that often took a hit with her busy work schedule)
  • Sleeping more than 5 hours/night
  • Instigating a gut-healing protocol
  • And LEARNING TO SAY “NO” (i.e. not constantly people pleasing).

The result?

  • Diminished bloating and water retention
  • Energy (for days) to power through her workouts
  • And feeling lighter, free-er and able to focus on more important things (like being a girl boss in business)

Win. Win. Win.

Your Turn

Is stress the “culprit” keeping you stuck in your metabolism rut?

It’s something you may have to see to believe for yourself, but what would it be like to just try to do something different?

Be it:

  • Sleeping a little more
  • Cutting out the over-consumption of coffee (even back to 1 quality cup per day)?
  • Eating out a little less and cooking in a little more
  • Stopping the “push it” mentality in the gym—and tuning in more to the “listen to your body” mode
  • Stop saying “yes” to everything
  • Unplugging from social media at night

Let’s get creative and see what stress-hacking plan we can come up with.

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