Our body is a beautiful, intelligent, and complex system of many parts working together like an orchestra to help us have a seamless and high-quality experience of life. In the present state of the world, with unregulated pollution, GMOs, work-related stress, bad eating habits, and wifi waves all around us, it is no wonder that our bodies seem to be failing us.
We often feel lethargic, anxious, and stressed, knowing deep down that something is not okay and that we could feel much better. Sadly, many of us don’t know how to improve our situation, especially since we only hear of conventional methods of how to heal the body that often doesn’t work long-term.
In this guide, I will focus on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which regulates how we deal with external stressors in everyday and fight-flight-freeze situations. The more robust and healthy our HPA axis, the better we can cope with the stress we experience in life.
Undoubtedly, the HPA axis dysfunction can lead to many debilitating symptoms that people often experience in today’s modern society, which can be triggered or exacerbated by even mild stress. Over time, when we experience chronic stress, our endocrine glands can get severely compromised, causing a myriad of chronic health problems.
Because the body is a unified system, the best way to start healing it is with tools that approach healing through a holistic lens. In this article, I will highlight many natural and effective ways in which you can heal the HPA axis dysfunction and your body holistically.
What is the HPA Axis?
The HPA axis consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary, and two adrenals (one on top of each kidney) – a group of endocrine glands that communicate with each other and the rest of the body, while taking cues from the environment.
These glands talk to each other by releasing different hormones and neurotransmitters that affect how each of them and the whole body function, connecting the nervous and the endocrine systems to form the neuroendocrine system.
It is no wonder that our external world can have such an impact on the health of the HPA axis. The HPA axis is the primary system that deals with stress, real or perceived, we experience in our daily lives.
HPA Axis and the Stress Response
With small amounts of stress and even intense but temporary stress, a healthy HPA axis is equipped to help us cope. However, with frequent acute stress, such as in fight-or-flight situations, or chronic stress, our HPA axis can become dysregulated.
And if we already have weaknesses in the HPA axis or acute and chronic stress will likely impact the HPA axis negatively, and we will have a much harder time getting back to a healthy state. This means that even if our pituitary, thalamus, and adrenals are very healthy, prolonged chronic stress can severely undermine the function of the HPA axis.
Any dysfunction in the HPA axis endocrine glands and their ability to communicate with each other can lead to an imbalance in the body’s ability to create important stress hormones and neurotransmitters, potentially causing heart palpitations, frequent colds, anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia, overwhelm-stresses tolerance, digestive problems, low body temperature, low libido, and high or low blood pressure, among many other symptoms.
Glands and Hormones of the HPA Axis
The hypothalamus, one of the oldest parts of the brain, is a small (49 ounces) and thin, almond-shaped endocrine gland located in the center of the brain, right below the thalamus.
The hypothalamus contains a variety of neurons that release key hormones crucial in maintaining proper body homeostasis. A group of neurons in the paraventricular nucleus region of the hypothalamus make and release the neurohormones corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and arginine vasopressin (AVP).
When we go through a stressful experience, the hypothalamus releases CRF and AVP to mitigate the event response and bring the body back into balance. These two hormones attach to their respective receptors on the neurons of the pituitary gland and activate the pituitary hormone release.
Right below the hypothalamus, there is a tiny protrusion of tissue called the pituitary. It has the size and shape of a small pea and weighs only .018 ounces. Despite its small size, it plays a large role in regulating the body’s stress response.
When hypothalamus hormones CRF and AVP act on the pituitary gland endocrine cells called anterior pituitary corticotrophs, they activate the assembly and release of the pituitary neurohormone adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH in turn attaches to the receptors of the adrenal cortex cells and activates the production and release of glucocorticoid hormones.
Humans have two adrenal glands, each resting on top of one kidney. An adrenal gland weighs about .3 ounces and is the size of a lemon but is only about .4 inches wide.
The integrity of both adrenals is crucial for optimal health, including feeling vital, confident, and strong-willed. Each adrenal is composed of an inner adrenal medulla and an outer adrenal cortex. The adrenal cortex releases steroid hormones including glucocorticoid hormones.
Adrenal Hormones and Which Hormone Does the Body Release Under Stress?
After pituitary hormone stimulation, the main glucocorticoid released from the adrenals is the well-known steroid hormone cortisol (CORT). Because it is lipid-soluble, cortisol diffuses out of cells and is quickly released into the bloodstream. Since a great number of cells in the body express glucocorticoid receptors, cortisol can impact the function of many systems in different parts of the body.
HPA Axis Negative Feedback Loop
Cortisol also acts as a signal to shut off its release from the adrenals. When the body reaches a critical amount of cortisol in the blood, cortisol signals back to the hypothalamus to decrease or shut off the release of the CRF and AVP hormones, a signal that in turn suppresses further cortisol release from the adrenals.
The negative feedback loop mechanism is crucial in the body’s ability to self-regulate stress responses and maintain body homeostasis. In the case of HPA axis dysfunction, the negative feedback loop will fail to shut off the initial activation of the stress response, elevating cortisol in the blood and causing many physical problems.
What Are Some Major Causes of HPA Axis Dysfunction?
Congenital Genetic and Epigenetic Effects
One of the possible causes of HPA dysfunction is our genetic profile and how our genes are activated due to our experience in the womb (epigenetics). Our genes do not determine our developmental outcome, per se, since it is both our genes and the womb environment that work together to shape the final integrity of our developing organs.
For example, if our family has a history of weak adrenal function, this weakness might show up in our own bodily constitution. Alternatively, you may genetically have strong adrenals but your mom could have suffered an injury while she was pregnant, causing her a lot of stress that catalyzes the release of cortisol all over her body. You also might have been delivered through the use of chloroform or an epidural, which are well-known neurotoxins. Any stress on a developing fetus could cause an epigenetic effect that could potentially result in the development of weakened organs of the HPA axis.
Early Childhood Trauma
In addition to genetic and epigenetic factors, a dysfunction of the HPA axis can be initiated by a difficult early childhood. From age 0 to 7, the human brain is in rapid development soaking up everything it can learn about the world, so the early childhood environment can have a drastic effect on how the brain becomes wired.
If the early environment is nurturing and supportive, a child is more likely to develop a robust nervous system that is balanced and efficient at regulating the body’s homeostasis. If, on the other hand, the childhood environment is neglectful or traumatic, the body and its organs start to function on high alert, overworking and depleting themselves just to keep the body regulated for adequate function. This is a perfect example of the body in survival mode, which is not a healthy state to be in for prolonged periods of time.
When the body is on constant alert, there is a high amount of cortisol streaming into the blood with the potential to damage many cells and tissues. Cortisol wreaks havoc on the body, because it is a mucus-forming, acidic molecule, which needs to be eliminated along with other toxic chemicals after serving its function.
To regulate further, the body also has to extract calcium from our bones (an important alkaline electrolyte) to neutralize the dangerously high concentration of acidic cortisol in our blood.
If our body can’t keep up with cortisol removal and it becomes congested with mucus and damaged with the lack of calcium (we need calcium for just about every function in the body), we will experience symptoms such as chronic pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, constipation/diarrhea, heart palpitations, and many other long-lasting symptoms.
Even if we had a relatively pleasant childhood, the lifestyle we choose as adults can have a great impact on the HPA axis endocrine glands. For example, if your glands are already weakened due to improper congenital development and/or a difficult childhood, you may be more susceptible to the negative effects of chronic stress.
Inevitably, the choices we make in life directly affect the function of our body. If we have a very demanding job with a toxic environment, we are more likely to experience chronic stress. In addition, if our home life isn’t helping us cope with stress at work, and even enhances it, our endocrine glands and our nervous system can take a huge toll.
As we become bombarded with emotional and physical stressors every day, we are constantly activating the HPA axis, causing chronic inflammation and depletion of our adrenal glands and the nervous system. Over time, our lifestyle can lead to a severely dysregulated HPA axis.
Physical and Emotional Trauma in Adolescence and Adulthood
The fact of life is that trauma can occur at any time and without warning. A death of a loved one, an accident, a breakup – any type of loss, can cause a great amount of physical and emotional suffering. When trauma occurs, our body activates the HPA axis so that we can cope with grief and the sorrow we face at that moment.
Even though our body tries to bring us into balance as soon as possible, sometimes we get stuck in a state of melancholia that is hard for us to break.
If we revisit emotional trauma constantly and stay in those emotions, our body will experience constant HPA axis activation which will weaken the HPA axis leading to symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety, depression, and other adrenal and nervous system issues.
Another kind of trauma is physical damage in the form of lesions due to an accident or toxicity to the HPA axis organs, which can also cause similar symptoms to emotional trauma. This physical damage can take time to heal or may have permanent effects on the HPA axis function depending on our individual healing process.
Another piece of the puzzle that impacts the overall health of our HPA axis is our diet (food, drink, any addictive substances) and what we put on our body, since the skin is a permeable organ that absorbs all the chemistry placed on it into the bloodstream. Processed food with additives is one of the greatest modern poisons to our tissues.
White processed sugar, iodized salt, artificial flavors and colors, monosodium glutamate (MSG; added in many foods to make them taste better), artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin) and preservatives (sodium benzoate, potassium benzoate, citric acid, tocopherol, butyl hydrohydroxytolueneminum silicate, and propylene glycol) act as toxins to our cells, and many of them target our nervous system specifically, dysregulating most of the bodily processes, including the HPA axis.
Environmental Toxins and Poisons
Toxic household products, pharmaceuticals, pollution, and additives in the water, such as fluoride and chlorine, heavy metals in food and cookware, kitchen utensils, paint, and dental fillings (mercury, aluminum, and lead) also contribute to chronic stress.
The more poisons we expose our body to, the more likely we are to add to the body’s stress load and negatively affect the function of the HPA axis.
What are the Symptoms of a Dysregulated HPA Axis?
If the body cannot keep up with or compensate for the damage of prolonged stress, we are very likely to experience various physical and psychological manifestations. Overstimulation or underperformance of the HPA axis can create equally damaging effects.
Since the HPA axis and its interaction with the body is a complex process, any disruption in the HPA axis cycle can cause symptoms that we may not even correlate with stress.
Defects in the HPA axis function can lead to a dysregulation of the heart rhythm, either producing low or high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat. If we are constantly vigilant about potential danger, our body will have an exaggerated HPA axis response during the stressful experience, causing an increased heartbeat and palpitations.
Continuous experience of perceived or real danger (the body is constantly in the fight-or-flight survival mode) can severely deplete the endocrine glands of the HPA axis.
Experiencing chronic stress can lead to an underperforming HPA axis, which becomes depleted and unable to produce proper hormones and neurotransmitters to bring us back to homeostasis from stressful events. As a result, we may experience low blood pressure most of the time, feeling lack a of energy, drowsiness and fatigue, which prevent us from living a vibrant and fulfilling life.
Weakened or Overactive Immune System
Increased cortisol in our blood acts as a signal to the body that it is experiencing a stressful situation. This situation causes increased inflammation in the body because our immune cells are working hard to clear up damaged tissue.
Inflammation in itself is actually a healthy and normal process. However, prolonged activation of the immune system and constant inflammation of the body can cause symptoms such as chronic pain, skin problems, allergies, fatigue, and many related issues.
In addition, enduring high cortisol levels for prolonged periods leads to an underactive immune system because cortisol acts as a signal for immune system cell death.
An underactive HPA axis can eventually lead to too little cortisol being released into the bloodstream, failing to activate the immune response. In this situation, we are very prone to bacterial, viral, and toxin damage to the body.
Digestive System Issues
The nervous and immune systems are intimately connected to the gut. Any disruption in these systems due to chronically low or high cortisol in the blood, can cause disturbances in the gut tissue. We may not be able to have proper bowel movements and, as a result, our toxic acidic waste can start corroding our gut tissue.
Furthermore, the gut lining may not be able to properly heal, causing symptoms of a leaky gut, which include rashes, gas, bloating, and gut pain.
Prolonged leaky gut issues can also be hospitable grounds for the overgrowth of candida and other parasites. Their presence can disrupt a healthy microbiome in our gut and cause bloating, gas, spasms, pain, and other irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.
Cortisol is also very important in regulating our circadian rhythms. In a properly functioning body, cortisol has a specific ebb and flow during a 24-hour span. For example, cortisol levels are very low during sleep and are at their highest just upon awakening.
Thirty minutes after we wake up, cortisol starts decreasing and is low until about noon when it reaches its second peak of the day. Any disruption in this cortisol cycle can lead to a disruption in the sleep cycle. If cortisol is high during sleep, the body may think that it should be awake and on alert, preventing us from falling asleep.
Skin Issues (Acne, Eczema, Psoriasis, and Rosacea)
Experiencing constant elevation of cortisol and other hormones in our blood can mobilize our body to expel these acidic tissue-corroding hormones out of our body as soon as possible. Because most of us have trouble eliminating our metabolic and food waste properly through the kidneys (kidneys are not filtering properly), the body’s intelligence compensates by sending them to a different elimination channel – the skin. The lymph carries these acids to the skin membrane (known as our third kidney) to eliminate them through sweat.
If our skin is very healthy, this elimination will not cause skin issues, but if we have weaker skin function, this waste expulsion can manifest as pimples, boils, cystic acne, inflamed red skin, extremely dry skin and oozing wounds (psoriasis), warts, eczema rashes, and other kinds of skin lesions.
Pregnancy is a highly-demanding physiological event and the body needs to be as optimally prepared for it as possible. However, if the body is constantly on high alert and there are high levels of cortisol and other fight-or-flight response hormones in the blood, it will try to shut down all the functions that aren’t absolutely necessary for survival.
From the perspective of the body’s intelligence, carrying a fetus to term is not necessary for survival, so it will do all it can to prevent a woman from getting or staying pregnant because she doesn’t have the ideal chemical ecosystem to do so.
But even if our body is not preventing pregnancy to preserve itself, we may instead experience low libido and an underperforming reproductive system due to either dysregulated hormones, an underperforming HPA axis, or both.
Dysregulated hormonal function due to disturbances in the HPA axis can lead to a highly-acidic environment in our body. Neutralizing factors such as sodium bicarbonate and calcium are mobilized to help us neutralize the acidic hormones surging in our blood.
However, the constant need for these neutralizing factors can deplete them (especially if our body is not able to absorb or utilize calcium).
During pregnancy, the female body is responsible for helping the fetus clear out its waste. Pregnancy is also an energetically and physiologically demanding event and requires a robust cohort of hormones, neurotransmitters, and nutrients so that the fetus can develop properly.
If the developing fetus takes more calcium and other minerals that the mom herself needs to feel healthy, she will experience the consequences of this depletion after the baby is born, especially if her body cannot quickly replenish all the minerals and neurotransmitters she needs.
Some women experience a brief postpartum depression after birth as their body takes a bit of time to rebalance. Other women, however, are so chemically depleted, that their body will not have the compounds it needs to regenerate, causing the onset of prolonged postpartum depression.
Nervous System Disturbances
Lack of calcium, various minerals, and neurotransmitters due to dysregulation of the HPA axis can cause many neurological problems, since the nervous system needs these molecules to function properly.
For instance, calcium is necessary for nerve impulses to travel from one neuron to another and transmit essential information through the rest of the body. Depleted calcium can lead to symptoms such as poor memory, seizures, dizziness, muscle and nerve spasms, and nerve pain along with many psychological disturbances.
Psychological Disturbances (Anxiety, Depression, PTSD, Schizophrenia, ADHD)
Physical nervous system disturbances due to the dysfunction of the HPA axis can also lead to psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and many psychological issues.
It is truly upsetting that the mainstream medical system believes that these psychological issues are merely mental in nature. On the contrary, many of them have a physiological basis that can be corrected through diet, lifestyle, and additional holistic healing methods.
How to Naturally Heal the Endocrine and Nervous Systems to Restore HPA Axis Function
The kind of environment around us – both emotional and physical – greatly impacts our health. One of the first steps to healing the HPA axis is to eliminate all the environmental stressors that could be causing the dysfunction.
You can start by making a list of toxic objects in your environment that you could quickly eliminate: harsh cleaning chemicals, conventional make-up, toiletries with toxic chemical ingredients, artificial fragrances, etc.
You can also eliminate microwaves by ceasing to use your microwave and reduce electromagnetic waves by shutting off your Wi-Fi receiver box whenever you aren’t using it. If you are a smoker or live with a smoker, think about quitting if you are ready and find ways you can eliminate second-hand smoke exposure.
Where you live and how much pollution you are exposed to will likewise greatly impact your health. If you cannot easily move to a less polluted place, do your best to eliminate your exposure by walking through streets with less traffic or covering your mouth when you are passing by a heavily-polluted area.
Finally, think about your job, your friendships, and your work environment. Do you feel that you should eliminate some of these interactions to decrease your stress exposure? On the other hand, many of us cannot change our boss and family members – rather, we can try to train ourselves to react to these stress triggers differently, which is the primary mission of somatic therapy.
Food and Herbs
The quality and energy of the food we eat can greatly help us heal a dysregulated HPA axis. One of the main things you can do is to invest in organic produce, because it is proven to have higher nutrition levels and is free from many industrial chemicals, including fertilizers, and herbicides used in conventional agriculture.
To transition to eating a healthier diet, you can start by incorporating more plant-based and whole foods into your daily meals. For even greater healing outcomes, I recommend that you consume a high amount of raw fruit and vegetables daily (ideally amounting to 80% of your daily food intake).
Raw food contains higher nutrition, energy, enzyme levels, and many other healing compounds that can help bring your body into balance.
If you feel called to do so, you can also start a detox protocol that lasts for at least a week but should ideally be conducted for three months. Eventually, you can do a juice fast to improve the function of your elimination organs (kidneys, gut, lungs, skin) and elimination of stagnant toxins in your lymph system, or the body’s sewage system.
However, don’t pressure yourself to detox right away and give yourself time to prepare adequately for it. Each one of us is at a different stage on our healing journey, and having patience with yourself and the process will help you follow through with your detox protocol once you decide to embark on it.
In addition to raw fruit and veggies, using herbs on your healing journey will help you buffer and reduce any healing discomfort (or healing crisis) you may experience. Herbs embody a powerful consciousness that knows exactly where you need healing and how to provide it.
A mixture of different herbs can also work synergically to provide even more benefits. Learning more about which herbs can help you heal a particular part of the body will help you tremendously on your healing journey.
Foods for Healing the HPA Axis Dysfunction
- Watermelon and other melons
- Seaweed and sea vegetables
- Bitter greens
- Tropical fruit
Herbs for Healing the HPA Axis Dysfunction
- Milky Oats
- Rhodiola Root
- Licorice Root (if you don’t have high blood pressure)
- Astragalus Root
- Stinging Nettle
- Schizandra Berry
- Hawthorn Berry and Leaf
- Eleuthero Root
- Ginkgo Biloba
- Gotu Kola
- Rose Petals and Rose Hips
Even with all the dietary and environmental changes, our body may still need a boost to heal and rebalance our HPA axis. We may have been exposed to stress for a very long time or we may have been born with weakened HPA axis organs. In these circumstances, glandulars may be the only elementals that help us mobilize our body’s ability to heal. But what are glandulars and why are they sometimes necessary for healing?
Glandulars are freeze-dried and ground mammalian organs. Most often, the adrenals, kidneys, pituitary, thymus, and hypothalamus are used for healing protocols. These organs naturally contain hormones and neurotransmitters that can help jumpstart the proper function of the HPA axis.
Many people are apprehensive about using glandulars on their healing journey, especially if they are already eating a healthy vegan diet and don’t want to consume any type of animal products.
Although a highly alkaline diet can heal the body over time, we may experience such dire problems with our gland function that a more potent intervention is needed.
If you decide to use glandulars to help you heal your HPA axis, it is a good idea to work with an experienced naturopath who knows the optimal amount and the kind of glandulars to use for your particular case.
Sometimes a trial-and-error approach is necessary to figure out a protocol that works best for you. However, you should not take glandulars for more than one to two months at a time or you could risk getting your body used to external sources of hormones and neurotransmitters, which could condition it not to produce its own.
Movement and Creative Expression
We were born to move in the world, but today’s restrictive environments and sedentary lifestyles aren’t enough to satisfy our body’s needs for movement and oxygenation of our blood and tissues. Our cells need oxygen for optimal function, and movement is one optimal way to help us unblock physical and energetic blocks that prevent the body from proper tissue oxygenation and nourishment.
We also need to express ourselves creatively to feel physically and emotionally balanced and fulfilled. Creative expression activates serotonin production and other feel-good hormones in the body that nurture our cells, help us feel present and joyful, and give us energy and clarity to follow our purpose in life.
In addition, creative expression helps move vital energy throughout the body, keeping us in optimal mental, physical, and emotional health.
Any kind of movement, including yoga, freestyle dance, swimming, biking, and walking, can help unlock and move pranic energy to and from our primary energy centers, or chakras, which will greatly improve the state of our overall health.
Another mode of creative expression is theater – watching a performance or being a performer can help us become conscious of our subconscious barriers to healing. Seeing or expressing our inner drama in the outside world can greatly help us heal physical and emotional traumas so that we can bring nourishment to our HPA axis.
Talk and Somatic Therapy
Our subconscious negative programs and traumas get stuck in our bodies and can create many of the issues we experience physically and emotionally. These programs can greatly impact how we react to stressful situations without our conscious awareness. Becoming aware of what is causing our HPA axis imbalance and how we may be contributing to its dysregulation could help us bring our bodies into balance.
Maybe we have tried movement and creative expression but haven’t talked to anybody about our struggles. Finding a therapist or a coach who can hold space for us and be a “witness” to our challenges can help us let go of what is holding us back from healing.
Sometimes, talk therapy isn’t enough to help us heal because our body has its own physical memory of trauma symptoms. In this situation, we can try to work on changing our body’s relationship with the world and its real and perceived stressors.
Trauma often dampens the body’s ability to naturally and effectively regulate the stress response, even if our mind doesn’t perceive this particular event as stressful. The best approach is to find a skilled somatic and trauma practitioner who can lead you through effective exercises that can help you further regulate how you react to stressors of the outside world.
For a lot of us, especially if we have gone through severe trauma, the world can seem like a dark and painful place. Our perspective may not allow us to see that we are more than our pain and our body, and that there is more to life than our 3D reality.
Expanding our perception of life to something bigger than our life experience and realizing that we have a unique purpose here on earth to share with others can show us that we are connected to everything, including the unseen realm.
A beautiful way to connect to the unseen I call the divine is through sound and music. Others feel that taking a walk in nature or making a healthy meal brings them into a peaceful state where they feel connected to everything around them. Yet another way to feel more elevated spiritually is to spend time with animals in their natural habitat.
Overall, a major part of our healing journey is figuring out what brings us joy and peace. Through the exploration of who we are and what makes us fulfilled (which lowers our subconscious stress response mechanisms), we can even discover our gifts and purpose in this life – the spiritual fuel for healing.
Finding meaning, beauty, joy, and purpose in our life can inadvertently help our bodies heal naturally, without any medical intervention or prolonged healing protocols. If we think of our life as a journey of discovery, perhaps the healing journey can teach us how to better align to our true needs and authenticity, so we can more readily live our purpose and inspire others to do so.
Our body is a beautiful and sensitive organism that is made to survive and heal. However, all too often, we are stuck in survival mode because of our hectic and depleting modern lives. As a result, our endocrine glands and other delicate systems not made to run on fight-and-flight responses of modern-day living will take a toll, preventing us from achieving internal homeostasis.
Stress has become a normal daily occurrence for most of us, but prolonged stress can contribute to HPA axis dysfunction, whose regulation is crucial in helping our glands send the right messages to other parts of the body that tell them how to execute their functions.
Because this axis is the first one mobilized to help us relieve stress and bring the body back into balance, its constant activation can lead to both high or low levels of cortisol in our blood, causing many common symptoms including gut problems, nerve spasms, anxiety, brain fog, underactive immune system, and fertility issues.
Because our body is a holistic system, conventional pharmaceutical medicine cannot help us heal and may only serve to temporarily relieve symptoms. To truly regenerate the body from the core, we have to approach our health issues in a holistic way that addresses our current relationship to our body, mind, and spirit.
And if you need a bit more help on your journey to healing, my new ebook on how to detoxify and regenerate the body naturally can be a great asset to get you started with knowledge and empowerment.
Such an important article!!! People don't often realize how their subconscious can keep them in chronic dis-ease because of trauma. So rich and full of indispensable information! <3
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