Burnout is not so easy to define, but you sure 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, 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)
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:
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 shortchange yourself of sleep, nutritious food, time for exercise, and social opportunities.
When patients 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 or anemia, or even true depression.
If all else is normal, we may also want to measure your cortisol level. Cortisol is the fight or flight hormone made in the adrenal glands and we can measure by collecting saliva samples at 4 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:
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 contemplate 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?
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 are getting lots of nutrient dense foods (ie, vegetables, healthy proteins and healthy fats ), doing restorative forms of exercise (eg, yoga, Tai Chi), meditating, and taking supplements that support the adrenals (eg, rhodiola or ashwaghanda). If you are dealing with burnout, we recommend working with your functional doctor to create a tailor-made plan that includes guidelines for nutrition, lifestyle changes, and supplements that are right for you.
Although we mostly think of burnout as occurring at work or as a caregiver for the elderly or infirmed, 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 Ben & Jerry’s 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:
While there isn’t a quick and easy fix for burnout, it is possible to reverse it. in this video, dr. robin berzin discusses how we treat burnout and help our patients break the cycle and live their healthiest life.
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.