What is Allostatic Load?

Posted by Nicole on June 22

If you have an interest in the science of stress and how it affects your health, one phrase you may sometimes hear is “allostatic load.” But you may not be clear on what allostatic load is or why it is important.

The concept of allostatic load was introduced by McEwen and Stellar in 1993. In simple terms, your allostatic load is the burden of chronic, ongoing stress you are under on a continuous basis.

Emaline Friedman, PhD explains, “In essence, high allostatic load or overload denotes the presence of stressors that pose too great a challenge to the natural individual coping mechanisms and reflects the cumulative effects of associated, health-damaging behaviors (e.g., poor sleep, lack of exercise, alcohol consumption).”

Research shows that people who are subject to a high allostatic load tend to struggle more with their health.

On top of that, stress is not fun for anyone. The higher your allostatic load, the more overwhelmed you probably feel psychologically in general at any given time.

What Can You Do About Your Allostatic Load?

A number of factors can increase allostatic load. These might include malnutrition, a lack of socioeconomic privilege, factors in one’s environment, existing health problems, challenging life events, and so on.

Alas, sometimes one cannot do much about such factors. By definition, if you lack privilege, you often lack the means to break free of your troubles. But here are some things you can do that might help:

  • Look up community resources in your area, and use them. Apply for aid you qualify for, and ask for help from advocates.
  • Quit bad habits like overindulging in drink or smoking.
  • Let go of toxic relationships, and build bonds with people who truly support you.
  • Try and eat a healthy diet and incorporate regular exercise and sleep.
  • Do what you can to gradually try and fix problems in your life—but give yourself breaks too.
  • Address unrealistic expectations (which can cause unnecessary levels of stress and disappointment in some situations).
  • Tailor your coping mechanisms to your individual needs.
  • Try not to avoid acknowledging your painful emotions. As famously explained by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. in The Body Keeps the Score, trauma can live in the body. The less willing you are to process your trauma consciously, the more likely it is to lurk in your body unresolved, wreaking havoc.

It can be difficult to hear that your allostatic load is detrimental, and that what you can do about it may be limited by your circumstances. Still, even being aware of your allostatic load and doing your best to find ways to cope and alleviate strain can help.

Allostatic load is very much a societal problem, being as many of the factors that feed into it are the direct result of how our society is organized. For that reason, it is also important for all of us—no matter how high or low our allostatic loads may be—to contribute to building a society that provides the support that all of its members need to live healthy and fulfilling lives.