Burnout can be soul-destroying and life-disrupting (I know from experience!). In this article, we’ll go through how burnout happens, the signs and symptoms of burnout, what causes burnout symptoms, and how to fix burnout so you can start to turn your health (and life) around and thrive after burnout.
There are many signs and symptoms of burnout, beyond just feeling exhausted. It can feel like you’re pushing through a thick cloud of fatigue and brain fog each day.
Thinking clearly becomes challenging.
You start to make poor decisions – and you procrastinate on tasks you’re too tired to deal with.
Your productivity levels, enthusiasm and drive for life plummets, leaving you feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.
You feel overly emotional, and more sensitive to the pressures of life. Everything just feels harder.
The ripple effect to the rest of your life can be devastating. You’re too tired to maintain relationships, and just the thought of socialising in the evenings or weekends with friends is draining.
You might be wondering – ‘How the hell did I get here?!’.
So, before we discuss all the symptoms of burnout (the above burnout signs and symptoms are just a few examples), let’s start there.
The pathway to burnout
Here are some of the ways burnout comes around. This article on Inc summarised the 12 stages psychologists have identified that lead to burnout:
Do you recognise some of these behaviours in yourself?
All of these factors above cause one thing – stress.
Chronic stress is a major cause of burnout. This is because stress has far reaching effects on the body.
In fact, stress-related illnesses are at an all-time high, with estimates as high as 90% of visits to GPs being related to stress in some way.
When it comes to burnout, stress can cause a range of symptoms.
Before sharing some steps you can take to turn your health around, let’s look at some of the key burnout symptoms, and why you may be experiencing other symptoms as a result of stress on your body.
So… what are the signs and symptoms of burnout?
Here are just some of the signs and symptoms of burnout / adrenal dysfunction:
- Feeling tired all the time
- Feeling tired in the mornings and around 3pm
- Weight gain, especially around the midsection
- Brain fog
- Problems getting to sleep and staying asleep
- Dizziness / light-headedness
- Regularly catching colds and viruses
- Craving sweet and/or salty foods
- Not handling stress as well as you used to
- Anxiety and overwhelm
- Low mood / depression
Can you relate to any of these signs and symptoms of burnout?
If you do, keep on reading, as I’m now going to show you how those symptoms are connected.
The progression to burnout
Your body works tirelessly to achieve a state called ‘homeostasis’ – where all the functions in your body are balanced and working properly.
Many circumstances can trigger an imbalance – with stress, poor nutrition and a body overburdened by toxins being the primary causes.
When homeostasis is thrown off balance in one part of the body, a cascade of imbalances can occur in other parts of your body.
In the case of burnout, the imbalance starts through one or more of the primary causes.
Maybe you’ve been pushing yourself too hard for too long – or you’ve had ongoing stress.
Perhaps you’ve been eating foods that aren’t nourishing your body properly, or you’re eating under stress.
If you eat while feeling stressed, you’ll absorb less nutrients from the food you’re eating (even if it’s healthy food). This is because digestive function is inhibited when your body’s stress response is activated.
Also consider that we’re exposed to an ever-growing list of environmental toxins, which our bodies aren’t made to deal with.
And if you’re constantly stressed, the detoxification pathways responsible for removing toxins from your body are compromised. This places even more burden on your body.
You also need more nutrients under stress, so the deficit can place even more strain on your body’s pathways – leaving you even more depleted and tired.
Now you know these triggers…. you’re probably no longer surprised that so many of us are feeling tired all the time!
What happens to your body under stress? How does it cause burnout symptoms?
Now, I’m going to get a bit technical for a moment, to walk you through what’s happening in your body when you’re at or heading towards burnout (not too much, promise!).
Stay with me as it will explain many of the signs and symptoms you’re experiencing.
The pathway in your body responsible for your stress response is called the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis for short).
The hypothalamus is the master gland in the brain that initiates the release of hormones adrenaline and cortisol in the adrenal glands. Adrenal glands are walnut sized glands that sit on top of your kidneys.
Adrenaline is the fast acting hormone that gives you the energy to swing into action quickly in the presence of an immediate threat (whether it’s a demanding email from a client, or an imagined fear).
Cortisol is also involved in your stress response, and influences your circadian rhythm. It makes you feel awake and alert in the morning and energetic throughout the day.
It also plays a big role in maintaining balanced blood sugar levels, keeping your energy stable.
When your adrenal glands are constantly under stress, the production of cortisol can kick into overdrive.
For a while, you’re feeling super energetic and on top of the world.
Eventually, the HPA axis is thrown off balance, triggering continual high cortisol production.
This is the early stage of what’s called ‘adrenal dysfunction’.
There are typically three stages of adrenal dysfunction, ranging from feeling moderately stressed and tired to completely exhausted.
The latter stage is often called ‘burnout’ or ‘adrenal fatigue’. When you’re this tired, a holiday or extra sleep may give you some relief, although still leaves you feeling less than your once vibrant self.
In the first stage of adrenal dysfunction, you’ll feel tired, stressed and a bit edgy. As a result of high cortisol, you may regularly experience feeling your heart racing, an increase in sweating, anxiety, racing thoughts, headaches, muscle twitches, muscle aches, dizziness and problems getting to sleep at night.
As all your body’s systems work closely together, when one pathway is out of balance, it can have a knock-on effect to other pathways.
The effects and symptoms of high cortisol are:
Yes, that’s a LOT of symptoms – ones all too common these days.
When you’ve been at this stage for a while, the HPA axis becomes unbalanced, leading to irregular cortisol production.
At this stage, you’re feeling wired, tired, ‘edgy energy’, as well as tired in the morning and awake in the evening.
A normal daily cortisol rhythm is high morning cortisol – to wake up you and give you energy and drive to tackle your day. Then, it’s followed by a gradual decrease in cortisol, ending with low evening cortisol to help you get to sleep.
At this wired and tired stage, your body makes too much cortisol in the evening, and not enough cortisol in the morning.
Find it hard to get out of bed in the morning, and feel like you’re not having a refreshing sleep?
It’s likely you have low morning cortisol.
Get a second wind late in the evening, and have trouble getting to sleep?
It’s likely you have high evening cortisol.
Low cortisol leads to burnout symptoms
Eventually, in the burnout stage, the hypothalamus will down-regulate cortisol production as a way of protecting the body from cortisol, leading to your energy flat-lining.
You no longer feel you can handle stressful situations as well, as your body’s stress response is diminished, leaving you feeling even more stressed and anxious.
At this stage, your adrenal glands’ functions are inhibited (not ‘fatigued’ as is often thought), including another primary role of these glands – blood pressure management.
Hence why one of the key burnout symptoms is dizziness due to low blood pressure.
A big symptom or sign of burnout is craving salty food. This is because the body needs salt to create adrenaline and cortisol, as well as to increase blood pressure.
Do you now see the bigger picture of how all your burnout symptoms are related?
I’m sure much of this surprised you, as it did me when I first started learning about what my symptoms meant.
When I was feeling exhausted, even though I was lucky to have a wonderful doctor, the standard tests she ran showed nothing wrong with me.
I was recommended iron supplementation and B12 injections (in the bum, ouch) which I did as I desperately wanted to feel better. Yet it did little to increase my energy levels.
Because unfortunately, doctors are only trained to diagnose actual diseases. They’re not trained to identify an imbalance in the body – the stage before a disease manifests. Hence they aren’t aware that these symptoms are symptoms of burnout.
Hence conventional medical tests typically will not pinpoint an imbalance.
You can have a slew of doctors tests and be told there’s nothing wrong with you. That there’s nothing they can do to help you.
It can leave you thinking you’re going crazy and make you feel totally frustrated and helpless. Like you really need that stress!
If you’ve been down that path, I’m overjoyed that you’re here, arming yourself with this vital information so you can get to the root of your fatigue and reclaim your health!
Ok, so that’s the techy part DONE!
(If you’re reading this – congratulations on making it this far!)
Now…. take yourself back to a time in your life where you had the energy, clarity of thought and drive to glide effortlessly through your day.
THIS is the benchmark for health.
This is what homeostasis feels like – where all your body’s systems run like a well oiled machine.
Imagine feeling this way every day… How much time and energy you’d have to actually enjoy your life versus flopping on the couch each evening!
How to fix burnout
The first step to fixing burnout is to know where you are on the Burnout Scale (click here to find out now).
This quick questionnaire will help you determine what stage of burnout you’re at. Please note that this test is a guide only. I often do functional testing with my clients to explore their cortisol levels, and other factors. Alongside an indepth health assessment, this gives me a better picture of their health.
If we work together, I’ll tailor suggestions to your unique health history and needs. However, while there are different herbs, nutrients and lifestyle measures you can use to help your body heal itself at each stage of burnout, there are some fundamental strategies that will help all stages.
Often, the approach involves a combination of nutrition, stress management and lifestyle strategies, such as the ones that follow:
You aren’t what you eat, you’re what you absorb. More often than not, people who come to see me with burnout have digestion issues that show up as food reactions, bloating, belching and other digestive woes. Because their digestive system isn’t functioning optimally, they aren’t able to digest and absorb nutrients from the foods they eat. Hence fixing digestive imbalances is often the first step to improving nutrition to fix burnout.
Eat nutrient dense foods
Also, a body under stress is nutritionally demanding. This is because stress increases the speed of processes in the body, therefore more nutrients are required than normal keep body processes running. Supplementation is often required to meet the demands of the body, along with getting to high enough therapeutic doses so the body can heal.
Eating nutrient dense whole foods like meat (especially organ meats like liver and heart), fish, fruits, vegetables (particularly leafy green vegetables), nuts, seeds, beans and pulses is also recommended. Choose organic where possible, particularly animal products, fruits and vegetables to avoid pesticides that can add another burden to the body’s detoxification pathways.
Balance your blood sugar levels
Does your energy fluctuate throughout the day? Do you get energy slumps mid morning and afternoon, and do you feel super groggy after meals (especially lunch)? It’s likely that your blood sugar levels are out of balance.
As insulin, the glucose regulating hormone, has an intimate bidirectional relationship with cortisol, balancing your blood sugar levels will help balance cortisol which can help reduce burnout symptoms. Steps to do this:
Eat protein with every meal. Gass-fed beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, fish, whey/hemp/pea protein are the best sources. You will get some protein from cheese, milk, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and grains).
Ideally, your protein intake should be around 30% of your caloric intake.
Get at least 20g of protein at breakfast. Protein will help spike cortisol levels to boost your energy.
Limit your carbohydrate intake at breakfast and only eat complex carbohydrates, as their effects on your blood sugar are more balanced than refined carbohydrates (bread, baked goods).
Complex carbohydrates: beans, pulses like lentils, gluten free grains like quinoa, brown rice and buckwheat, vegetables like green leafy vegetables (broccoli, spinach, kale, cabbage, asparagus), plus starchy vegetables like sweet potato, potato, peas and squash.
Include a portion of healthy fats with each meal.
Fats should make up about 30% of your caloric intake.
Sources include: seafood, avocado, olives, flax, hemp, sunflower, chia and pumpkin seeds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts and almonds.
One portion equals:
- 2 teaspoons of oil (olive oil, flax oil, hemp oil)
- a small cupped palm of nuts or seeds (10-12 nuts)
- a thumb sized amount of nut butter
- a quarter of an avocado
Remove or limit stimulants like sugar, caffeine and alcohol.
All of these stimulants can stimulate cortisol production and lead to spiking blood sugar levels, making you have an energy high followed by an energy dip (e.g. the 11am and 3pm slumps).
I know I’ve probably ruined your day, although avoiding these stimulants, and especially avoiding relying on them for energy, will make a big difference to your energy levels. While caffeine and sugar in particular give you short term energy, they rob you of energy long term and keep you stuck on the energy / exhaustion rollercoaster.
If you’re a caffeine lover, switch to herbs that give you energy naturally without the crashes, like ginseng (tastes great with peppermint) or Lion’s Mane mushroom tea. If you’re after a sharper brain, try gingko with peppermint tea (one of my favourites). Gingko increases blood flow to the brain, improving brain function.
Learn from the past
You now know that one of the biggest contributors to burnout is having a high stress load. Most people I see tell me their burnout symptoms started when they had a high amount of stress from work, family, finances or other life situations that tipped them over the edge, and they had a breakdown. While these events are traumatic and stressful, there’s much to be learned from them.
One of the first steps I take with clients is to look at what got them here, and at what point they crossed their healthy stress threshold into unhealthy territory. From there, we establish healthy boundaries around stress, and explore what their healthy stress threshold is so they avoid burning out again.
To start this process, take a moment to recall the time you crossed your threshold. What healthy habits did you forgo? Put another way – what did you start compromising when it came to your health and wellbeing? What were some warning signs you should’ve listened to (i.e. symptoms, gut feelings you ignored, thoughts, the concern of friends)? Write these down. These are the things you should avoid doing, and signs you should look out for, to preserve your health in the future.
From these insights, we build a resilience plan to help maintain your wellbeing for the long term. We also explore what else needs to be put in place to protect your health and wellbeing. Take some time to think about what makes you feel good and healthy on an ongoing basis, and what doesn’t.
On a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle of the page to make two columns. On the left column, at the top write ‘I feel great when’. On the right, write ‘I don’t feel great when’. Write down as many things that you can think of that fit each column.
I feel great when…
I get 8 hours of consistent sleep each day
I read a book instead of watch TV before bed
I spend time in nature
I don’t feel great when…
I sleep less than 8 hours of sleep, especially more than one night in a row
I eat sugar, especially in the evenings
I watch horror movies that stress me out
I spend time with Brenda
I say yes to things I want to say no to
Write down as many as you can think of. Keep these on hand as a reminder of what makes you feel good, and what doesn’t.
Declutter your life
Most of us are carrying around a lot of mental stress (especially nowadays).
A powerful exercise I have clients do is to declutter their minds of all the unnecessary stress. These are thoughts about people, places, and things – and those imaginary stressors that live only in your head – that you cannot control. Doing so frees up mental space and energy to put towards caring for yourself.
Make relaxation and self-care non-negotiable. Just like you schedule in work appointments, schedule time in your diary for self care too.
If you’re hesistant about scheduling self care and sticking to it, consider this: if this was your child, what would you think about them putting off relaxation and self care? Wouldn’t you want them to care for themselves first and foremost? The sames goes for you, too!
Here’s where to start:
- Get to sleep earlier, ideally by 10pm and maintain good sleep hygiene
- Meditate for 10 minutes each day
- Do one of these 100 self care acts each day
- Schedule activities that bring you joy and FUN
Work with the rhythm of your body
Living in alignment with your biology creates and maintains wellness. Moving away from that creates illness.
While our biology hasn’t evolved for hundreds of thousands of years, our world has changed drastically. We now live in a world with chronic stress. We have nutrient depleted soils (and therefore, food), processed food, environmental pollution and a highly stimulating environment (especially online) that’s disrupted our biology. This is especially true for our sleep patterns and sleep quality that impact how well our body repairs itself. All of these factors conflict with our natural biology – which is the same as our ancestors who lived 300,000 years ago.
Therefore, we need to do what I call ancestral re-learning of what we need to thrive, and unlearning some of the health-robbing habits from the modern world. This includes many of the strategies above around sleep, relaxation, and nutrition.
Healing from burnout also requires working with the pace of your body
Unfortunately, there is no magic pill or quick fix to healing burnout. This is partly because burnout is multifaceted – many factors of health need to be addressed. For example, many people take energy supplements thinking that will solve their burnout. However, if factors like cortisol dysregulation, ongoing stress and poor digestion aren’t addressed, those supplements will do little good.
In addition, healing takes time, so we must surrender to the pace our body will work at to heal. In a fast-paced modern world, where we want things quickly, this can be frusrtrating. However, stressing over not getting better quickly enough will simply impede the healing process.
The key to fixing burnout (or any chronic health condition) is taking consistent steps each day that promote health, while trusting that your body will heal in good time. Lots of relaxation during that time will certainly help 😉
Explore other underlying, contributing factors
There are many other factors that can contribute to burnout. These include hormonal imbalances, overburdened detoxification pathways, gut dysbiosis (an imbalance in the microbiome in the gut) and nutrient deficiencies. Having these explored can bring to light what other factors may be contributing to your symptoms, especially if you’ve been trying to fix your health for a while without success.
Ready to fix burnout for good?
Having burnout is stressful and exhausting. And not knowing what to do, in what order, adds more stress to the equation. While the above tips are general advice on how to fix burnout, having my support will help you get better much quicker than you would alone. Together, we’ll assess your health to determine what’s contributing to your burnout symptoms, and create a personalised health plan to get you better. Plus, I’ll be there the whole way along until you’re back to your amazing self again.
Before you go, I’d love to know – what’s one step from above that you’ll take today? Let me know in the comments!
ABOUT MELISSA SMITH
Melissa is a naturopathic nutritionist and health coach who helps people who are feeling tired all the time get their energy and life back. She consults with people worldwide via webcam (AKA telehealth) from Melbourne, Australia.