Allostatic Load definition

Allostatic load refers to the long-term effects of continued exposure to chronic stress on the body. Colloquially, it is often referred to as ‘wear and tear.’

The theory behind allostatic load suggests that the acute stress response in human bodies becomes maladaptive when it is consequently activated in response to chronic stressors. Bodily responses to stress, such as increased coagulation, release of cortisol and increased load on the heart, are both protective and adaptive in the short-term, but can cause damage if over-used.

The human body has to maintain homeostasis (the status quo) by controlling variables so that the body can function efficiently – the obvious example is maintenance of internal temperature. Adaptations to maintain homeostasis are through a process called allostasis. The bodily responses mentioned above help the body adapt to stressful situations through allostasis.

These bodily responses are designed to be invoked when faced with acute situations and then ‘turned off’ – chronic stressors create a situation where these bodily responses are invoked too frequently, creating allostatic load. Long-term exposure to allostatic load can lead to disease and bodily breakdown.

Allostatic load can be increased due to dysfunctional coping mechanisms such as a repeated failure to habituate to common stressors, and an inadequate response from one or more bodily responses that leads to hyperactivity in other bodily responses to stress.

Allostatic load has become increasingly relevant to the workplace as researchers study the long-term effects of flexible working, short deadlines, over-use of technology and other forms of modern occupational stress.

The term allostatic load was coined by researchers Bruce S. McEwen and Elliot Stellar in 1993.