It has long been accepted that the human body is always working towards stable and constant conditions. This is referred to as homeostasis. This stability is created by making adjustments any time changes occur. In this way the body can adapt to changing external circumstances by making internal adjustments. Allostasis theory is concerned with how stability is achieved through change.

The Difference between Allostasis and Homeostasis

Although allostasis and homeostasis are related there can be confusion as to what each one means. In basic terms homeostasis can be described as the way the body maintains and returns to stability. Allostasis is concerned with the whole dynamic process of achieving this balance. Homeostasis implies remaining stable by being the same, while allostasis suggest remaining stable by changing.

Allostatic Load

Allostatic load refers to the cumulative consequences of allostasis on the body. If these consequences are too much, it can lead to a state known as allostatic overload. The cost of adapting to external conditions becomes so high that it causes mental or physical disease. For instance, if the individual is constantly exposed to high levels of stress hormones such as adrenalin, it could lead to allostatic overload. The outcome of this long-term is likely to be poor physical and mental health. There is said to be two types of allostatic overload:

* In Type 1 allostatic overload the energy levels required outstrip the available supply. The effect of this is that people go into survival mode.
* In Type 2 allostatic overload there is enough energy in the system already but the individual continues to accumulate more of it. This may be due to severe external stressors such as family problems, war, or social strife. The danger with type 2 allostatic overload is that it does not trigger an escape response. This means that the individual needs to learn how to manage the overload before too much damage can occur.

Allostasis and Stress

Stress is part of life but people will differ in their ability to manage it. In many instances stress can actually be a positive force because it motivates people to perform at their best. If people fail to cope with stress it can mean a high level of stress hormones circulating in the body. This interferes with the normal stress response and even small triggers can be enough to have people feeling stressed out. This type of chronic allostatic overload can be very damaging on the body. It is therefore necessary for the individual to reduce their allostatic load. This could be achieved by relaxation techniques or anything else that helps people deal with stress.

Allostasis and Addiction

Allostatis has been used to describe what happens when people become addicted to alcohol or drugs. As their dependency develops the individual can be viewed as entering a new allostatic state. The allostatic load of their addiction will start to cause physical and mental damage. In the beginning they will be able to temporarily escape this damage by further substance abuse. This will ultimately increase their allostatic load leading to further problems. The addict is caught in a downward spiral. The fact that they are almost constantly dealing with allostatic overload ensures that they remain caught in their addiction.

Allostasis offers an interesting explanation for why addicts so frequently relapse after a period of recovery. The cause of this return to addiction may be the changes to the brain which occurred during the addiction. One of the most important changes to occur will have been to the brain’s reward system. Even though the individual has entered recovery this reward system can still be associated with substance abuse. It can take a long period of abstinence before this reward system has recovered.

In order for the individual to escape the addiction there needs to be complete abstinence from the drug. This will allow for a healthier allostatic state to develop. Once the individual understands the concepts of allostatic overload it can make it easier for them to accept the need for abstinence. It should also help them cope better during the early months and years of recovery.