Stress is ubiquitous in our modern 21st century living and burnout is constantly on the rise. With the WHOs recently announced acknowledgement that burnout is a serious factor to be dealt with, defining it as a "syndrome" specifically tied to "workplace stress", hopefully we can start effectively addressing this modern ailment that can have serious medical repercussions
What is stress?
Stress implies an adaptive response to any kind of threat – real or perceived. The stress response begins in the brain, which instructs the body to respond accordingly. Evolution has not prepared us for our modern day experience of chronic stress, in which our stressors are relentless, and the stress response doesn’t have the chance to switch off. This has led to a current reality for many of being “stressed-out”.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is the state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by chronic, prolonged exposure to stress. Where stress can lead to a feeling of hyperactivity and overwhelm, burnout is a state of inactivity and inability, emptiness, hopelessness, absolute exhaustion. The impacts are far-reaching, throughout the brain and the body, and recovery can be a long, difficult process. Prevention, as much as possible, is key!
What to do?
I have learned, through my own experience of burnout, and through my studies and research, that there is much that can be done to support the body and brain, dampen the physical stress response, and to increase our resilience to stress. I’ll give some tips below on how to prevent and treat burnout through a healthy diet and lifestyle, with the assistance of a Functional Nutrition practitioner, alongside psycho-social support.
Stress in the modern world
Everyone has different stressors. Some common stress triggers of our modern world include:
The body is good at adapting to stress. But historically, stress would have been a short-term experience, and we would have recovered and returned to a steady state of relative health. In the modern world, we no longer spend a few hours per day hunting for food. Today, there are multiple sources of relentless stress – we are not wired for this. So it’s not unusual to be in a state of chronic stress.
“We are engaged in lifestyles that are not compatible with what our genome has evolved over millions of years ago to expect.”
Isn’t it all in your head?
No, it’s not. The impacts of stress are experienced throughout the body and the brain (the physiology), as well as the mind (comprised of thoughts and emotions).
Stress begins in the brain. The effects on the brain can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on the type of stressor and the duration of exposure. Chronic stress can result in changes to nerve structure and function, as well as the death of neurons, which may accelerate the process of brain degeneration.
But the effects of stress reach far beyond the brain. Negative emotional states and responses, once entrenched, may themselves operate as profound psychogenic (physical illnesses that are believed to arise from emotional or mental stressors) sources, contributing to chronic stress response activation – notably, with excessively high cortisol levels, until they plummet with adrenal exhaustion - and adverse neural programming. The impact of these imbalances in the body’s communication between the brain and the nervous / hormonal systems over time can influence other bodily systems.
What about BURNOUT?
Burnout is beyond stress. It is the state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by chronic, prolonged stress. Where stress can be useful when applied to specific, acute circumstances, burnout is a state of collapse, of emptiness, hopelessness and disengagement.
Physically, burnout is characterised by excessively low cortisol levels. The toll on the mind and body is heavy, and recovery can be a long, arduous process.
About a third of workers experience chronic work stress and are "often or very often burned out or stressed" and “identify work as a major source of stress and anxiety.” Psychiatr Serv., 2007
Treatment for burnout tends to focus solely on psycho-social support, overlooking the tremendous physical impacts that can increase the risk of illness and disease, and which exert further pressure on the brain.
What can be done?
To improve stress adaptation, we need to give the brain and the body the opportunity to heal itself. That means creating an environment to enable the brain to engage in its adaptive process and become more resilient.
Reach-out: Remember to speak with people who about you, about the things you care about. They don’t need to fix your problems, just to listen.
Find a coach: A good coach can help you to understand your situation, reposition the thoughts and feelings behind the stress, and find solutions – not by giving you the answers, but by asking the right questions, from a place of objectivity.
Consider therapy: A good psychologist or psychiatrist should have the training and experience to help you get to the root of what is happening in the mind.
We are what we repeatedly do. Healthy lifestyle habits are essential to one’s well-being, and are instrumental in developing resilience - which is key to preventing and treating burnout.
Optimise sleep: is important to make sleep a priority, to help insulate against the effects of cortisol imbalances.
Indulge in Mindfulness: mindfulness-based stress reduction has been shown in to significantly reduce perceived stress.
Make exercise a priority: Exercise is a powerful antidote to stress. Physical activity helps boost the body’s production of endorphins, to help you feel good.
Reduce toxic exposure: Toxins place additional burden on the adrenal glands. Research suggests that toxins can leave deposits in the brain that interfere with neuronal functions.
Find a forest to bathe in: In a recent study, people living more than 1 km away from green space (forests, parks, beaches, lakes) were found to be 42% more likely to report high stress and had the worst scores on evaluations of general health, vitality, mental health and bodily pain.
The food we eat affects every cell in the body. It can be either poison or medicine – choose wisely! Good nutrition as medicine provides an excellent opportunity to dampen the stress response.
Omega-3: Healthy omega-3 fats have been shown to lower depressive symptoms and improve neurocognitive performance under stress. Opt for wild, oily fish, such as salmon. Supplementation could be useful.
Cut the sugar: Sugar depletes the body of nutrients, and can negatively affect mood, the immune system and gut microbiome.
Fermented foods: Fermented foods are useful in supporting a healthy gut microbiome. Good sources of “healthy” bacteria include yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and kimchi.
Avoid processed foods: Processed foods rob the body of needed nutrients, can trigger an immune response, which can damage the body’s cells, and can feed the gut’s “bad” bacteria.
Optimise antioxidants: Antioxidants help to mop-up free radicals and prevent tissue damage, which can be caused by the stress response. Increase your intake of vegetables and fruits, particularly berries.
Limit stimulants and intoxicants: If you enjoy coffee and alcohol, then consider at least reducing your intake – e.g., one cup of coffee per day, and an occasional glass of wine as a treat.
Functional Medicine (FM) is a science-based, client-focused approach that aims to restore optimal health by identifying and addressing the root causes of illness, rather than treating symptoms.
Don’t guess, test! Functional lab testing can give an in-depth view of what is happening in the body – for example, to see how your hormones are fluctuating over a 24-hour period, or having insight into your gut microbiome. A Functional Medicine practitioner can help determine which biomarkers to analyse, and can then order the tests you need.
Work with a Functional Nutritionist: Functional Nutritional can help to unravel the extensive information obtained through detailed functional lab testing and a thorough medical history. S/he can help to plan a course of action, including diet and lifestyle recommendations. Supplements may be considered, for example: nutrients, enzymes, amino acids, neurotransmitters, plants and/or herbs.
Join the Brain Health Programme: The Brain Health Programme aims to optimise brain health and cognitive function using a multi-modal nutrition and lifestyle approach that the human genome requires for optimal health. For further information on joining the Brain Health Programme, click here.
Written by Scotti McLaren, Functional med student at CNELM who has extensive knowledge in the area of burnout both personally and clinically, in collaboration with Nutri-360
Nutri-360 is a Functional Nutrition practice focusing on mental health issues, hormonal health and gut health, owned and run by Kerry Fugard.
Switzerland, South Africa
firstname.lastname@example.org / www.nutri-360.com