Burnout. It’s a very real and distressing condition, and something I see all too often. Our hectic, fast-paced lives these days are really not agreeing with our bodies at all – leaving us tired, worn out people. And it is something that our modern science-based medical system really doesn’t have an answer for – your doctor may run a few blood tests, but when everything comes back ‘normal’ then what do you do?
Thankfully, there ARE answers to burnout and some of them are really quite simple. But they involve recognizing burnout in the first place, and taking a proactive approach to restoring health and energy. So let me share with you a little bit of naturopathic wisdom and a few cold hard facts…
What exactly IS burnout?
Burnout is a state of lowered vitality (physical, mental and emotional) where there is no obvious medical cause or overt illness. It is different from other causes of fatigue, because it originates from a disruption in the stress response system. Most commonly, it occurs following either an extremely stressful event (for example, the loss of a loved one, divorce, moving house etc) and/or a period of long, unrelenting stress. While as human beings we are biologically hardwired to cope with a certain amount of stress (such as running away from man-eating bears), we aren’t meant to cope with long periods of extreme stress without a break to repair and recuperate. Our 21st century lives have really played havoc with our systems and thrown us way out of balance. Your stress response system is finely tuned to respond to any kind of danger, and this response system still thinks you are in danger any time you experience stress – even if it’s no longer from man-eating bears, but instead from things like dealing with a high-pressure career, a hectic family life or financial strain. Your stress response system helps you cope with threats, by heightening your reactions and alertness, but it can only do this for so long before its capacity to continue responding to the stress drops and your body becomes not unlike an empty car – you get to a point where you can turn the engine all you like but there’s no fuel in the tank to make things go.
What causes burnout?
There can be a few different factors in the development of burnout, and not everyone develops burnout when challenged with high stress levels. But factors such as nutrient deficiencies, drinking alcohol, eating too many foods that are high in sugar/refined carbohydrates, and poor stress management can all play a role in how your body deals with stress.
How do you know if you are burnt out (or heading that way!)?
Because burnout messes with your stress response system AND your nervous system, it can have some varying identifying symptoms. Clinically, I find these are the most common:
- Feeling like you always have a ‘flat battery’. In particular, difficulty getting out of bed in the morning is a hallmark of a burnt out energy system, as is waking feeling unrefreshed, even when you have had a decent sleep. Your hormones are meant to peak in the morning to help you get up and going with energy to chase the day – but when the system is overloaded your body simply can’t produce any ‘get up and go’.
- Difficulty sleeping. The same system that is responsible for getting you up and going in the morning also should help you wind down and relax at night. But when it is out of balance it means your ‘get up and go’ message gets all out of whack, and can give you an energy burst at the wrong time of day (ie when you need to sleep!). It’s common for people to complain that they feel ‘wired and tired’ – utterly exhausted, but too wound up to sleep.
- Hormonal imbalances, including PMS, menopausal symptoms and infertility. Your hormonal system takes a lot of notice of your stress system. After all, if your body perceives a danger it is going to prioritize survival over ‘less important’ bodily functions such as reproduction – these can always wait until safer times. But what also happens is that your stress hormones and your other hormones share the same ‘building blocks’ as their foundation. When you are chronically stressed, your body directs more of this raw material to your stress system, which can leave your hormonal system without the ability to create hormones in sufficient quantities. Hello, PMS, hot flushes, irregular periods, low sex drive and infertility!
- Weight gain, particularly around the midsection. This is because when your body is stressed, it releases glucose into the bloodstream, so that your muscles have plenty of ready energy to use to escape from that bear. But this also pushes your body into a state of fat-storage.
- Digestive upsets – indigestion, irritable bowel, diarrhea and/or constipation can often occur when you have been experiencing high stress levels. Stress has been shown to actually affect your gut health and the balance of bacteria in your digestive system.
- Low immunity - experiencing lots of colds, flus, persistent urinary tract infections (UTI's), or feeling like you don't really recover well in between bouts of illnesses. An overloaded stress response system can weaken your immune defences, leaving you more vulnerable to infections.
Practical steps to recover from burnout:
If you recognize any of the symptoms I’ve mentioned above, then it is IMPERATIVE that you take a good hard look at the kinds of stress that are in your life, and how you can look after yourself better. Burnout is not a good place to get to, and recovery can take time and effort.
When I see patients in the clinic who are at that stage of complete mental, physical and emotional exhaustion, most frequently they are the types of people who have ended up burnt out from many years of looking after others, and putting themselves last. If this is something you recognize in yourself, then you need to start putting some petrol in your own tank, and actively taking some time for self-care.
Some natural strategies can help:
- Eating well is #1. Yes, I know this is the last thing you feel like doing when you are exhausted, but it really is the most important thing you can do to begin the healing process. At this time your body is crying out for nutrients that help to nourish your stress and energy production systems. Include some fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein foods (chicken, fish, meat, eggs) and some raw nuts/seeds to help restore your system. If this seems to overwhelming at first, just begin by adding 1 extra handful of vegetables to your food per day.
- Gentle movement. Moving your body helps to reduce stress, and encourage the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to where they need to go. But when you are burnt out, it is important that you choose the right kinds of exercise. This certainly isn’t the time to begin high-energy exercise like training for a marathon (in fact, this kind of exercise is detrimental when you are in a state of burnout). This is the time for gentle, restorative types of body movement – think gentle stretching, a yoga class if you feel up to it, kicking a ball around with the kids in the backyard or an easy-paced walk with your dog.
- Ditch the coffee. When you feel flat and worn out, it is natural to turn to caffeine for that energy boost. However, coffee may give you an artificial energy hit, but in the long-run it depletes your body’s vital energy (of which you have very little when you are in a state of burnout). When healing from burnout your body needs nourishment, not depletion. Try switching (gradually) to a caffeine-free beverage such as a herbal tea.
- Take some regular ‘time-out’. This is one very effective tactic you can use to reduce stress and stave off burnout, or that will help you start to recover if you are already very depleted. Schedule some time each day to spend on something you enjoy – read a book, watch a favourite movie or meet a friend for lunch. Remember to keep this activity guilt-free – after all you deserve to take some time to yourself so that you can put that petrol back in your tank.
- Targeted nutritional supplementation. High-strength B-vitamins, magnesium, and the amino acid tyrosine may all help your body replenish its energy levels.
- Adaptogenic herbal medicines. There are a group of herbs that can be of great help when healing from burnout – these are known as the ‘adaptogens’. They help the body cope with stress, and support restoration and rejuvenation of a healthy stress response system. I regularly use these herbs in the clinic, as a large proportion of my patients are chronically stressed. My favourites are Withania (Ashwaganda), Siberian Ginseng, Astragalus, Holy Basil and Rhodiola. These herbs all work in a slightly different way, meaning that a certain herb might be best suited to your particular situation, so it is always best to have these prescribed and monitored by a qualified natural healthcare practitioner rather than self-prescribing a one-size-fits-all retail product.
- Finally, give your body time to heal. Burnout doesn't happen overnight - it's usually a long and difficult road that brings you to this point. It takes time to replenish the adrenals and restore balance to the system.