When I posted one of my Soul Shares about burnout last week I received a lot of direct messages and comments. It reminded me about the stigma that still exists for people going through burnout and the shame and feeling of failure that surrounds this diagnosis (or lack thereof).
Burnout is defined as physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress. Stress affects us every day. Whether from work, finances, or relationships, stress can make us feel overworked and overloaded. But stress affects more than just our mental performance. It has real physical consequences, too, and can eventually lead to poor health and disease.
My own experience with burnout is not really linear and not a one-time-only experience. I’ve had a few bouts that have occurred over the last 2 decades, the first occurring before as my marriage was ending and the last occurring in 2013, where I had the gift of being laid off which, in combination with a drastic change in my nutrition, shone light on how much time and nourishment is needed to truly rest and recover. There is a huge spiritual aspect to burnout which I will write about in a later blog, but first I want to address the physical aspects.
NUTRITION - A significant part of my background and passion is in nutrition. I talk about it so much because it’s a foundational aspect of coming back to yourself and you know, we need nutrition to thrive. As women who have spent so much time in self-denial of basic needs in order to even claim our space at the table, burnout has become a common side effect of that deprivation. Typically we push beyond our fatigue to give to others, ensure others are fed, clothed, bathed, comfortable, happy, warm etc. It’s paired perfectly with our nurturing nature (and before I get bunch of comments, I know I’m generalizing here; it’s a blog, not a dissertation). But what we tend to leave behind in all that nurturing is what WE need while taking care of others and more often turn to coffee to wind us up and wine to wind us down. I’m fine with both of those for the sake of enjoyment, but when enjoyment bleeds into dependency, we’re on a slippery slope and it begins to create a roller coaster of stimulants and depressants.
The Hypothalamus in our brains is a stress sensor. When this activates, it creates a whole hormonal cascade, first signalling to the pituitary gland, which then sends messages to our adrenals, the tiny glands that sit just above our kidneys. This is called the hypothalamus-pituitary- adrenal index (HPA Axis) and it’s essentially a powerful feedback system. The adrenals are responsible for many hormones including our main stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol.
When we go through a prolonged period of stress this HPA axis can become dysfunctional, leading to what we call adrenal fatigue or burnout. This can occur in a few stages, with cortisol initially being high, and then eventually dropping so low that it can prevent people from even getting out of bed!
When cortisol gets out of whack, body tissue can break down, nutrients can be depleted, and the immune system lowers, with fatigue, insomnia and mood disturbances arising. Recovery needs to be taken seriously so that it doesn’t lead to complications. It can take anything from a few months to a couple of years to get the HPA axis functioning optimally again.
Common physical signs of burnout include:
· Chronic fatigue
· Forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention
· Physical symptoms - Physical symptoms may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches (all of which should be medically assessed).
· Increased Illness - Because your body is depleted, your immune system becomes weakened, making you more vulnerable to infections, colds, flu, and other immune-related medical problems.
· Loss or increase of appetite
First, acknowledge that you’re burned out; See a doctor and give them a list of symptoms, let them know you think you might be burned out.
How do you recover? Start with self-care basics. Sleep. Eat. Drink.
You may be amazed at how little you can accomplish in one day and even feel guilt or shame about it. Many people feel discouraged at how easy it is to become exhausted by the simplest tasks when recovering from burnout.
BALANCE YOUR BLOOD SUGAR - Blood sugar is one of the first things to manage in healing from and preventing burnout/stress, as cortisol trigger a release in blood sugar (in order to fuel the body), and on the flip side, imbalances in blood sugar can cause a rise in cortisol, and a negative cycle begins. Foods that raise blood sugar include all refined sugars, white flour products, alcohol, and fruit juice. Too many refined carbohydrates can cause problems. It’s important therefore to focus on foods that don’t raise blood sugar too much. This includes non-starchy veg, meat, fish, nuts, seeds and berries. Adding protein and fat to each meal is also vital, as these slow the release of blood sugar.
PROTEIN- RICH FOODS - With every meal, try to get in some high-quality protein; the amino acids are important for repair of muscles, tissues, and hormones. Great sources include undenatured whey, nuts, seeds, free range eggs, wild fish and grass fed meat.
REDUCE CAFFEINE - One cup of coffee or tea a day is fine, but if you find yourself“needing”more and the afternoon slump leaves you with cravings for coffee, tea or chocolate, or other refined carbs these stimulants may actually leave you more depleted as they raise the stress hormones of their own accord. I recommend an Adaptogenic tonic or a protein-rich snack as an alternative.
IMPORTANT NUTRIENTS - During periods of chronic stress, nutrients can become depleted and are therefore needed in larger quantities to help with repair. These include magnesium, B vitamins, zinc, and vitamin C. Sometimes food sources will do the trick, but I’ve found that supplements can be required.
ADAPTOGENS - Adaptogens are a group of herbs that work specifically with the adrenal pathway, helping to bring hormones into balance, and some can be really useful in healing from burnout. They work by normalizing the body’s functions under stress and taking them daily improves mental and physical performance while reducing fatigue. Though all Adaptogens help the body reduce and resist the effects of stress, they each have their own mechanism of action to benefit overall health. And because there’s no toxicity associated with Adaptogens, the more the better. You can purchase Adaptogen blends from me directly. I personally swear by them and use them daily.
SLEEP - Sleep is vital as it’s a time when your body repairs and restores. Aim for at least 8 hours a night and retired to bed before 10pm to make sure you’re working with the Earth’s natural rhythms. Between 10PM and 3AM is when the body experiences the biggest amount of “repair” time.
EXERCISE - If you’re already close to burnout levels of stress, you want to go easy on the exercise. Exercise will boost energy levels, however pushing yourself hard can actually do more damage. Intense cardio can increase cortisol, and if you’re already burnt out, you may not have the reserves to repair. Opt for restorative exercises or even brief intermittent training instead.
LAUGH - Yes, laugh. In my first burnout experience, I decided that I would stop consuming anything negative. I only watched funny programs and read funny books. Laughter truly is the best medicine and I found that I had far more energy after watching a funny movie than I did after spending so much time being frustrated by my lack of energy. Laughter was one of the best parts of self-care and I still use this medicine as often as possible.
If you think you’ve experienced burnout, are in burnout or are recovering from burnout and would like some guidance on next steps, feel free to reach out. The nutritional system I use was instrumental in helping me regain my vitality and energy and I can help you get started with your own tailored system to fit your specific needs. I firmly believe that health is one of the greatest assets we can have.