This post is part of the Hogg Foundation’s “3 Things to Know” blog series, which explains concepts influencing community mental health and our grantmaking. Check out others in this series: BIPOC, Cultural Humility, Trauma-informed Care, Recovery, Healthy Equity, Social Determinants of (Mental) Health, Resilience and Well-Being.
Stressful experiences trigger a cascade of physiological responses. Fortunately, our bodies have feedback mechanisms that stabilize these deviations and return us to normal once the stressful experience is over — a process known as homeostasis. But what about long-term stress, which build ups over time and is more difficult to relieve? The toll that chronic exposure to stressful experiences takes on the body is known as the “allostatic load” — and it’s the subject of our latest “3 Things to Know” blog series. Here’s three things to know about allostatic load:
1. Allostasis is a largely beneficial and adaptive condition
The regulatory model of allostasis – anticipating needs and preparing to satisfy them before they arise – provides important benefits for our survival. It helps our body regulate use of important resources. In nature we see examples of allostasis serving species as animals respond to seasonal demands. A bird, for example, anticipates an abundance of food in the spring, which they use to fuel reproduction and raising their young. If, however, inclement weather increases the cost of maintaining homeostasis (the bird’s normal levels) then the allostatic load for breeding increases – while reduced amounts of food are available to fuel that load. This can result in a negative energy balance in the bird, and can lead to loss of body mass and suppression of reproduction.
2. Modern life and health disparities disturb this mechanism
Part of efficient regulation of the allostatic system is reduction of uncertainty — an increasingly difficult undertaking in modern human life. Our brains expend an incredible amount of energy striving to reduce uncertainty for future outcomes, and allostasis helps us do this by anticipating needs and planning to fulfill them ahead of time. If we are unable to resolve our uncertainties, the situation can become chronic and accumulates in a high allostatic load. Those whose lives involve more uncertainties than others, like those experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, or other forms of resource scarcity, will accumulate a greater allostatic load than those whose lives are more predictable. Indeed, published literature demonstrates that allostatic load is elevated in those of low socioeconomic status as compared to those of high socioeconomic status. For example, the chronic stress and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ways it has differently impacted diverse groups, has highlighted the fatigue and exhaustion of a carrying a heavy allostatic load.
3. Interventions can protect us
Allostatic load differs by sex, age, and social status of an individual. Still, protective factors and interventions can, at various times of an individual’s life span, be implemented to reduce stress and eliminate the onset of high allostatic load. Protective factors can include parental bonding, education, social support, healthy workplaces, a sense of meaning towards life and choices being made, and positive feelings in general. Other types of interventions can include encouraging better sleep, social support, self-esteem and wellbeing, improving diet, avoiding alcohol or drug consumption and participating in physical activity. To be sure, the best way to promote the health and wellbeing of all people — and to lighten our shared allostatic loads — is to prioritize equity in our policies and in our actions by dismantling systems and practices that cause harm and perpetuate inequities.