“Allostatic load” refers to the toll on our bodies because of being forced to adapt to adverse psychosocial or physical conditions. This represents either the presence of too much stress (chronic stress) or the inefficient operation of the stress hormone response system, which must be turned on and then turned off again after the stressful situation is over.
The primary hormonal mediators of the stress response, glucocorticoids and catecholamines, have both protective and damaging effects on the body. In the short run, they are essential for adaptation, maintenance of homeostasis, and survival (allostasis). Yet, over longer time intervals, they exact a cost (allostatic load) that can accelerate disease processes. The concepts of allostasis and allostatic load center around the brain as interpreter and responder to environmental challenges and as a target of those challenges.
In anxiety disorders, depressive illness, hostile and aggressive states, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), allostatic load takes the form of chemical imbalances as well as perturbations in the diurnal rhythm, and, in some cases, atrophy of brain structures.
In addition, growing evidence indicates that depressive illness and hostility are both associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD) and other systemic disorders.
A major risk factor for these conditions is early childhood experiences of abuse and neglect that increase allostatic load later in life and lead individuals into social isolation, hostility, depression, and conditions like extreme obesity and CVD.
Animal models support the notion of lifelong influences of early experience on stress hormone reactivity. Whereas, depression and childhood abuse and neglect tend to be more prevalent in individuals at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, cardiovascular and other diseases follow a gradient across the full range of socioeconomic status (SES). An SES gradient is also evident for measures of allostatic load. Wide-ranging SES gradients have also been described for substance abuse and anxiety disorders as a function of education. These aspects are discussed as important, emerging public health issues where the brain plays a key role.