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Health-Based Coaching: The Many Dimensions

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The HPA Axis

We can now turn briefly to the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis which plays such an important role in the interplay between stress and trauma.  This axis can be our helpmate when we are serving as health-based coaches. It can also be the enemy. The HPA axis is a complicated set of relationships and signals that exist between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland (a pea shaped structure located below the thalamus in the brain) and the adrenal glands (a small conical organ located on top of the kidneys). The delicate intertwining of the hypothalamus, adrenal glands and pituitary gland works in a very straightforward manner to activate the central nervous system. This activation, in turn, is a major neuroendocrine system that dynamically controls our stress response, digestion and immune system.

It is important to recognize that these complex interactions also control our emotions, moods, energy levels, and sexuality. While research with rats makes a distinction between social stress and physical stress, the HPA axis is involved in regulation of all forms and sources of stress regardless of how it is experienced. The HPA dynamic becomes even more complex when we acknowledge that several neurotransmitters are involved in regulating the HPA axis.  Furthermore, there is evidence that oxytocin, a neurochemical resulting from positive social and sexual experiences, suppresses the HPA axis—thereby counteracting the stress response and promoting the more positive health aspects of human nature.

The Gut-Brain Connection

We wish to introduce another important (and often neglected) sector that actively interacts with other physical and mental processes ongoing in our body—and that needs to be acknowledged in any effective and systemic health-based coaching engagement. This sector is the gut (our lower abdominal digestive system). The gut microbiome is a vast ecosystem that contains many, diverse organisms such as bacteria, yeasts, fungi, viruses and protozoans. These organisms live (and hopefully thrive) in our digestive pipes, which collectively weigh up to 2kg (heavier than the average brain).

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