Burnout can be soul-destroying and life-disrupting (I know from experience!). In this article, we’ll go through how burnout happens, the symptoms of burnout, what causes burnout symptoms, and how you can start to turn your health (and life) back around so you can thrive after burnout.
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 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 symptoms of burnout?
Here are just some of the 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 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), as 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 simply aren’t made to deal with.
And if you’re constantly stressed, the detoxification pathways responsible for removing toxins from your body are compromised, placing 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 and depleted!
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 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 – 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, making 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 – followed by low evening cortisol to help you get to sleep.
What happens at this wired and tired stage is that 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 if 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, as 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 – so 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.
Take the first step
The first step to restoring your health is to know where you are on the Burnout Scale.
There are different herbs, nutrients and lifestyle measures you can use to help your body heal itself at each stage, yet there are some fundamental strategies that will help all stages.
In all cases it’s a combination of nutrition, mindset and lifestyle shifts, like:
Eat nutrient dense foods
Whole foods like meat, fish, fruits, vegetables (particularly leafy green vegetables), nuts, seeds, beans and pulses.
Choose organic where possible, particularly with animal products, fruits and vegetables to avoid pesticides that can add another burden to the body’s detoxification pathways.
Balance your blood sugar levels
Balancing your blood sugar levels will help to balance cortisol which can help reduce burnout symptoms. Steps to do this:
Eat protein with every meal (grass-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
- 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.
They 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).
Declutter your life
Declutter your life of unnecessary stress: people, places, things – and those imaginary stressors that live only in your head…. (Here’s looking at you, perfectionism).
Make relaxation and self-care non-negotiable. Schedule time in your diary for them.
Curious to know where you are on the Burnout Scale?
The fatigue test I’ve created is assessment of burnout symptoms, and will reveal your score in less than 30 seconds.
Take the quiz here, then come back and let me know:
What’s one action you’ll take today to help you feel better?
Want even more energy boosting steps? Grab this free guide.
Melissa is a naturopathic nutritionist and health coach who helps exhausted women get their energy back. She consults with people worldwide via the web from her home in Melbourne, Australia.