Dr. Link’s 3 Steps to Fix Burnout

Lilli Link, MD
January 16, 2018

The fact is that modern life leaves us all open to the possibility of burnout. We’re so preoccupied with the desire to achieve as much as possible that burnout can strike when you least expect it.

What is burnout?

Burnout is not so easy to define, but you sure do know it when you feel it. It often happens after you’ve been doing something intensely for too long, perhaps without sufficient reward for your efforts, and you just can’t stand the thought of doing it any longer.

The concept of burnout has gotten a lot of attention amongst researchers, particularly as it relates to the workplace. There are three general dimensions to burnout: feeling emotionally exhausted, feeling cynical about the people you are supposed to be helping, and feeling that you’re not accomplishing much(1). The types of work situations that can lead to burnout include being overloaded at work, particularly at a highly demanding job, and feeling a lack of autonomy and support(2).

Symptoms of burnout

The psychological toll that burnout can have is probably not so surprising: insomnia and depression are common. But you might be surprised to see how many physical symptoms and illnesses are associated with burnout:

  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Headaches
  • Injuries
  • Increased mortality among people <45 years old(3)

Testing for burnout

At Parsley Health, I see so many patients that are driven to achieve as much as possible, as fast as possible, and it has us all reaching for dizzying heights of outward success—but at a cost. For some, that means driving yourself so hard that you deprive yourself of sleep, nutritious food, time for exercise, and opportunities for social interaction.

When people come to Parsley Health with what look to be symptoms of burnout, such as fatigue , insomnia, or lack of motivation, we first want to make sure that there isn’t an underlying cause, such as abnormal thyroid function, anemia, or clinical depression.

If all else is normal, we may also want to measure your cortisol levels. Cortisol is the "stress" hormone made in the adrenal glands, and we can measure it by collecting saliva samples at four points throughout the day .

People who are living particularly stressful lives may have cortisol levels above the normal range, indicating they are constantly pushing their adrenal glands into overdrive, whereas people who have been driving themselves literally to exhaustion may show cortisol levels that have bottomed out. Some studies that have measured the relationship between cortisol and burnout have captured these kinds of results (4, 5).

If you think you might be at risk for burnout, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you love your work, or at least like it?
  • Do you feel good about the work you're doing?
  • Is your work environment a healthy one?
  • Does your life feel balanced?

In our capitalist society, we often strive intensely to do whatever we are doing better than our competitor. And social media has only compounded this drive to succeed. We all end up having to work so hard that we no longer remember what it’s all for. What will really make us happy? Is it being number one at work? Or is it spending time with family? Or having time to cook a meal for friends?

How to reverse the effects of burnout

For people in the early stages of burnout, we just need to change the situation. For people who are in the later stage of burnout, changing the underlying cause may not be enough. For those people, they need to also make sure they're getting lots of nutrient-dense foods (i.e., vegetables, healthy proteins, and healthy fats ), doing restorative forms of exercise (e.g., yoga, Tai Chi), meditating, and taking supplements that support the adrenals (e.g., rhodiola or ashwaghanda).

If you're dealing with burnout, Parsley Health is one place where a medical provider trained in root-cause resolution medicine can create a tailor-made plan to heal burnout that includes guidelines for nutrition, lifestyle changes, and supplements.

Although we mostly think of burnout as occurring at work or as a caregiver, as I’ve been focusing on above, burnout can also happen in other aspects of life, such as self-care. Perhaps you’re "so over" following your zero-sugar diet that you decide to not only polish off a pint of ice cream, but instead of getting back on track the next day, you go back to old eating habits.

The solution here is the same as in the workplace. Consider the following:

  • Do what you enjoy: If you’re not getting pleasure from your diet, figure out ways to make what you are eating beautiful, delicious, and easy. Parsley health coaches are particularly creative when it comes to doing this.
  • Notice the rewards: Do you have more energy? Sleep better? Better digestion? Take less medication? Have better results on your blood tests?
  • Get support: Connect with people who are eating like you do and get tips and guidance.

Final thoughts on burnout

Burnout can happen in numerous aspects of our lives. And even though there are varying levels of burnout that you may experience, the approach to dealing with it is the same: you need to be doing something you enjoy, feel there is a purpose in doing it, and feel supported and rewarded.


  1. Maslach C, Jackson SE, The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of Occupational Behaviour, 2:99-113 (1981)
  2. Aronsson G, eta al. A systematic review including meta-analysis of work environment and burnout symptoms. BMC Public Health. 2017; 17: 264.
  3. Salvagioni DAJ et al. Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies. J Psychosom Res. 2015 May;78(5):445-51.
  4. Oosterholt BG et al, Burnout and cortisol: evidence for a lower cortisol awakening response in both clinical and non-clinical burnout. J Psychosom Res. 2015 May;78(5):445-51.

  1. Marchand A1, Juster RP2, Durand P3, Lupien SJ. Burnout symptom sub-types and cortisol profiles: what’s burning most? Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014 Feb;40:27-36.
Lilli Link, MD

Dr. Lilli Link is a board-certified Internist and Functional Medicine Practitioner who graduated from medical school at the University of Chicago, and completed her residency at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York.

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