Allostasis - Whales or Mice?

Allostasis vs Homeostasis:

2 completely different things, that many people will get confused with. On one hand we have processes which maintain bodily systems like water, blood PH and Body temperature and on the other hand we have physiological adaptations that take place to deal with challenges i.e stressors.

Homeostasis is quietly simple maintaining balance, which could be as simple as the kidneys stopping the formation of urine to keep the bodies hydration levels in check. Allostasis is quite different. Imagine we encounter a stressor, for example an exercise session, all the different physiological adaptations taking place like raised blood pressure, perspiration, increased alertness and focus are all part of our allostatic load to deal with the stressor at hand, and keep us functioning. The blood pressure is increased to try and keep blood flowing to the muscles that are demeaning oxygen, we are sweating to help mitigate the build up of metabolites and we are improving cognitive function so we don’t drop that 100kg barbell on our toe.

Obviously, allostatic load doesn’t have to come from a demanding physical action, there are many different situations. Traffic, deadlines, work, family/relationship troubles. Our physiological adaptations that take place will keep us alive, and well (for now).

However, someone with very little external stimuli, or someone that has enough recovery strategies to deal with multiple stressors will be less affected. On the face of it, someone who has major stressful stimuli, or a bad ability to deal with such stimuli will still be holding a metaphorical poker face, they seem fine, but on the inside the body is working overtime to create balance.

If you get two whales to carefully balance them on a seesaw (don't try it), it will seem like everything is ok, the sea-saw is balanced and everything is fine and equal. We’ve created a scenario that counteracts the stress with equally as much coping strategies. Wait there, imagine how much force is being put through that mid-point, and in time, that wear and tear will result in damage. That damage will be a result of constant force (stress) being put through the body, but helped masked by the physiological adaptations that take place to deal with, and optimally function during these times. Yes, the adaptations may be beneficial and helpful for us to endure such tasks like exercise, but a lot of the time peoples stimuli are not just exercise, they are a whole host of other things that go on in their own world, different environments and relationships.

Take two mice, balance them on a seesaw and again we have balance, which on the face of it looks the same as the two whales, but a whole lot less stress put on the mid-point of that seesaw, our bodies internal environment. So what we must understand is that even if we look ok from the outside and we are 'managing' our stressors, we need to understand the physiological adaptation that are happening within our body that are creating that 'I'm ok' look. That constant fighting, secreting, inhibiting, balancing the body has to do will have only detrimental effects down the line, eventhough today we feel ok.

We have endured a long, hard year of constant physical, but mainly mental stress, that has obviously and tragically taken peoples lives. I would advise that people don't attack the freedom that we will soon have, but more so be aware of the stress you may have been under over the past year. It would be useful and in everyones best interests to reflect on the year they have just had and decide if you think your seesaw has the mice or the whales placed either side. If you think its the whales, be cautious of your efforts, aggressive attempts and hard work you do over the next few month, the alcohol over christmas, the late nights, the 'making up for lost time' approach to everything. Don't fall into the new year with even more allostatic load, but make sure you make the right decisions in creating balance the right way.

Luke French | Health & Physique Coach

Published 24th November 2020

Personal trainer, health coach and fitness coach in Tunbridge Wells, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Hildenborough. Fat loss, weight management, muscle building, health & performance.

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