The concept of allostasis in biology and biomedicine

Horm Behav. 2003 Jan;43(1):2-15. doi: 10.1016/s0018-506x(02)00024-7.


Living organisms have regular patterns and routines that involve obtaining food and carrying out life history stages such as breeding, migrating, molting, and hibernating. The acquisition, utilization, and storage of energy reserves (and other resources) are critical to lifetime reproductive success. There are also responses to predictable changes, e.g., seasonal, and unpredictable challenges, i.e., storms and natural disasters. Social organization in many populations provides advantages through cooperation in providing basic necessities and beneficial social support. But there are disadvantages owing to conflict in social hierarchies and competition for resources. Here we discuss the concept of allostasis, maintaining stability through change, as a fundamental process through which organisms actively adjust to both predictable and unpredictable events. Allostatic load refers to the cumulative cost to the body of allostasis, with allostatic overload being a state in which serious pathophysiology can occur. Using the balance between energy input and expenditure as the basis for applying the concept of allostasis, we propose two types of allostatic overload. Type 1 allostatic overload occurs when energy demand exceeds supply, resulting in activation of the emergency life history stage. This serves to direct the animal away from normal life history stages into a survival mode that decreases allostatic load and regains positive energy balance. The normal life cycle can be resumed when the perturbation passes. Type 2 allostatic overload begins when there is sufficient or even excess energy consumption accompanied by social conflict and other types of social dysfunction. The latter is the case in human society and certain situations affecting animals in captivity. In all cases, secretion of glucocorticosteroids and activity of other mediators of allostasis such as the autonomic nervous system, CNS neurotransmitters, and inflammatory cytokines wax and wane with allostatic load. If allostatic load is chronically high, then pathologies develop. Type 2 allostatic overload does not trigger an escape response, and can only be counteracted through learning and changes in the social structure.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Biology
  • Homeostasis / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Social Behavior
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology*