Burnout in our society is seriously high, with thousands of us suffering from stress- related illnesses and becoming quite poorly. Whilst we may not all be able to pack up and venture to a tropical retreat, there are definitely things we can do to help buffer the effects of stress.
In our brain, there’s a part called the hypothalamus, which is a stress sensor. When this activates, it creates a whole hormonal cascade, fist signalling to the pituitary (another brain area), which subsequently sends messages to our adrenals, the tiny glands that sit just above our kidneys. This is called the hypothalamus-pituitary- adrenal index, or HPA index for short, and it’s essentially a powerful feedback system. The adrenals are responsible for many hormones including our main stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol.
When we go through a prolonged period of stress this HPA axis can become dysfunctional, leading to what we call adrenal fatigue or burnout. This can occur in a few stages, with cortisol initially being high, and then eventually dropping so low that it can prevent people from even getting out of bed!
When cortisol gets out of whack, body tissue can break down, nutrients can be depleted, and the immune system lowers, with fatigue, insomnia, and mood disturbances arising.
The precursor to cortisol i.e. the hormone that makes cortisol, is pregnenolone. This is also needed to make many other hormones including oestrogen, testosterone, progesterone, and DHEA. However, due to our evolutionary need to survive, cortisol takes priority and will “steal” the pregnenolone away from making our other sex hormones, which can lead to complications down the line. This is why prolonged stress can create menstrual irregularities, uterine growths, lack of sex drive, anxiety, memory issues, and insomnia.
Recovery needs to be taken seriously so that it doesn’t lead to complications. It can take anything from a few months to a couple of years to get the HPA axis functioning optimally again.
Blood sugar is one of the first things to manage in healing from and preventing burnout, as not only can cortisol trigger a release in blood sugar (in order to fuel the body), but on the flip side, imbalances in blood sugar can cause a rise in cortisol, and a negative cycle begins. Foods that raise blood sugar include all refined sugars, white flour products, alcohol, and fruit juice. Even too many starchy carbohydrates and fruits can cause problem. It’s important therefore to focus on “low glycemic” foods i.e. foods that don’t raise blood sugar too much. This includes non-starchy veg, meat, fish, nuts, seeds and berries. Adding protein and fat to each meal is also vital, as these macronutrients slow the release of blood sugar.
We want to make sure that blood sugar doesn’t dip too low either, so eating every 3 hours and consuming breakfast is important.
With every meal, try to get in some protein, as it not only helps to prevent fluctuations in blood sugar, but the amino acids are also important for repair of muscles, tissues, and hormones. Great sources include lentils, pulses, nuts, seeds, eggs, wild fish and meat.
Whilst the afternoon slump may leave you craving coffee, tea or dark chocolate, these stimulants may actually leave you more depleted as they raise the stress hormones of their own accord. Try switching to herbal teas or coffee alternatives like chicory or dandelion.
During periods of chronic stress, nutrients can become depleted and are therefore needed in larger quantities to help with repair. These include magnesium (found in leafy greens), B vitamins (in whole grains and veggies), zinc (in some seeds and shellfish) and vitamin C (in leafy greens & red fruits/ veggies). Sometimes food sources will do the trick, but more often than not, supplements will be required to boost levels therapeutically. If you are using B vitamins, please ensure your supplement has folate and NOT folic acid.
Unfortunately during times of stress, digestion can also take a hit, preventing the effective absorption of nutrients. You may also want to consider supplementing with betaine HCL or digestive enzymes.
Adaptogens are a group of herbs that work specifically with the adrenal pathway, helping to bring hormones into balance, and some can be really useful in healing from burnout. For more information, on adaptogens, click here
Sleep is vital as it’s a time when your body repairs and restores. Aim for at least 8 hours a night and retired to bed before 10pm to make sure you’re working with the Earth’s natural rhythms.
Go easy on the exercise. Whilst there’s the story that exercise will boost energy levels (which is true), pushing yourself hard can actually do more damage and even cause you to retain more weight. Intense cardio can increase cortisol, and if you’re already burnt out, you may not have the reserves to repair. Opt for restorative exercises or even brief intermittent training instead.
Most of all, just look after yourself and practice self care. Give yourself some time out, and make sure you laugh every day!
If you’re interested in testing your cortisol levels or want nutritional support to get back in balance, please get in touch with me directly.