How to Overcome Burnout + Feel Like Yourself Again
Do you feel like you almost need a crane to get yourself out of bed in the morning? Like your day doesn’t start until your first shot (or two) of coffee?
If so, chances are you remember a time when you used to bounce out of bed refreshed, and could move and do almost anything you wanted during the day. But now… it all seems hard. What’s more, you’re constantly “snapping” and getting upset or angry over the smallest things. It’s like you simply can’t deal with anything anymore.
If any of this sounds familiar, #1 – you may be experiencing the effects of burnout, and #2 – I totally get it! It’s no fun feeling like a frayed, irritable (and sleepy) version of you has taken over, leaving the “old you” behind like a distant memory!
The good news is, with time and care, it’s possible to overcome burnout and feel like yourself again. And it’s completely worth it. Both for your quality of life and your long-term health + happiness! So let’s get into it…
What is Burnout, or “Adrenal Fatigue”?
Burnout, or “adrenal fatigue”, is an increasingly common condition stemming from our modern lifestyle. But what exactly is it all about?
To put it simply, burnout is a weakened state that results from ongoing, chronic stress on our bodies. It’s also commonly referred to as “adrenal fatigue” in the alternative health community… but as I’ll discuss, based on current research this may not be the most accurate name to use. (1)
Now I best mention that in this article I’m using the name “burnout”, but technically what we’re speaking about here is Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis (“HPA axis”) dysregulation. Now try saying that one ten times fast! 😛
The HPA axis is essentially our body’s stress-response system, which involves our hypothalamus (in the brain), our pituitary gland (also positioned very closely to the hypothalamus), and our adrenal glands which sit right above our kidneys. Stress is the trigger that stimulates our HPA axis to set off a cascade of stress hormones and neurotransmitters including cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. This cascade is also known as the “fight or flight” response, and it’s ideal in situations where we need get moving, fast!
But enter chronic stress: bills due, kids to drop off, work deadlines… and we have a problem.
Ongoing stress can lead to a chronically activated HPA axis or stress-response system. And while the theory of “adrenal fatigue” says that our adrenal glands eventually become overtaxed and unable to maintain cortisol production, the science currently suggests that this is not quite the case (and that it may be an overly simplistic view). Alternatively, it appears that after constant activation the HPA axis as a whole becomes dysregulated, and wears at our body’s natural resilience at a cellular, tissue and organ level… hence the wide array of unpleasant symptoms we can experience. Yikes!
But technicalities aside, what this really boils down to is a critical mismatch between our body’s stress-response system and our modern environment. Just as we have not evolved to eat the hyper-processed foods that are so common today, we also haven’t evolved in an environment where stress is constantly and chronically triggered.
And since the resilience of all our body’s systems can be affected, the symptoms for burnout or HPA axis dysregulation are many! However, some of the most common symptoms include:
- Fatigue (e.g. hitting snooze 10x, and crashing in the afternoon)
- Low blood pressure (feeling dizzy on standing up)
- Low (or nonexistent) libido, and
- Poor exercise performance and recovery.
Steps to Overcome Burnout
If you’re feeling the effects of burnout, take heart that it doesn’t have to stay this way forever.
The path to healing – while it does take time and patience – is all about restoring resilience and limiting the taxing effects of stress. Keep reading for our top tips to do just that!
#1 – Address Emotional Stress
It goes without saying that stress, in all its forms, should be avoided when overcoming burnout! But interestingly, it’s not only stressful events and situations that need to be addressed. Our emotional and level of “perceived” stress also impacts our HPA axis, and can potentially be the most significant driver of burnout.
Destructive emotions such as anger and frustration, or even sadness and despair, over time, can take their toll on the body. In many cases, reframing the situation and how we think about it is the first step to breaking negative emotional patterns. In other cases, the situation needs to change entirely!
Take a look at your own life, and get curious about the thoughts and emotions that could be wearing you down. Is it time to reframe? Release a grudge? Make a change that you’ve been delaying? If you’re interested in this type of thought work and understanding your emotions, one of our favourites to tune in to (via podcast) is Brooke Castillo over at the Life Coach School.
And of course, stress management techniques such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (“MBSR”), meditation, and journaling are all effective tools that we highly recommend for reducing emotional and perceived stress.
#2 – Address “Hidden Stress”
When we talk about stress, it’s easy to think that it’s all about what we experience in our mind. Indeed, emotional, perceived and situational stress are all important to address (as highlighted in #1!). But the fact is that many of us…even if we reach a zen-like state… are walking around with “hidden stress” that constantly takes a toll on our bodies.
Some common “hidden stressors” that we may carry include inflammation in our guts, autoimmune conditions and unstable blood sugar. And while we can’t see any of these stressors, they significantly add to the burden of stress on our bodies and wear at our natural resilience. Over time, these hidden stressors can alone bring about a burnout state.
That’s why if you are trying to overcome burnout, it’s so vitally important to identify any hidden stressors that may be affecting you + work on calming inflammation.
I will add that personally, I was hampered with my own hidden stress (for years!) in the form of gut inflammation. If you want to hear more about that and my journey back to health, click here.
Related: How I Healed Eczema Naturally
#3 – Opt for Gentle Exercise
Of all the burnout symptoms you may be experiencing, it’s arguable that exercise intolerance is the most difficult to come to terms with! It can be so deflating to know that the exercises you once enjoyed are off-limits, as they worsen your fatigue and put you two steps backward.
On the other hand, you may be surprised to hear that spending the whole day in bed is not ideal either! Just as vigorous exercise poses a stress to the body, being sedentary also triggers our stress-response system and can worsen burnout. Our bodies were made to move… so don’t stop!
While you are healing from burnout, it’s best to opt for gentle physical activity such as walking, restorative yoga and tai chi. Practicing these gentle movements will all help to restore your body + mind, and keep your body active – as it’s meant to be. 🙂
If you can, avoid the temptation to incorporate more vigorous exercise such as running, HIIT and heavy strength training. It’s common to start pushing our limits once our strength starts returning (been there!). But be mindful that pushing yourself too hard, too soon could put you back at square one. So give it time, patience and remember to love your body where it is and how it is, right now.
#4 – Prioritise Fun + Social Connection
When we’re busy trying to up-level our lifestyle and heal our bodies, it’s common for things to get too serious! When in fact, a crucial part of our healing takes place when we experience positive emotions + experiences like play, fun and simply hanging out with friends and family.
So if you’re spending a lot of time thinking about your food, or obsessing over your energy levels and exercise, it may be time to switch up your focus!
Prioritising fun and social connection is an important (and often missing) link in achieving the total health and wellbeing so many of us desire. It’s in our DNA to socialise, play and bond with others… and it does our bodies a world of good. But as adults in a culture that values productivity above all else, it can feel odd to prioritise fun. If the thought itself brings up feelings of guilt for you, this may be a really important area to explore!
A word for introverts: if the thought of socialising during this time is enough to make you want a nap, we totally get it! Social connection isn’t necessarily about going to parties or big social gatherings – they can be exhausting (even for the extroverts among us). Instead, it’s about spending time with those that we love and feel comfortable around, whether that’s our partner, family members or closest friends, or even a club or support group that shares our interests or struggles.
P.s. if you’re looking for a supportive place to hang out (without leaving your home!), why not join us in our private Facebook community? It’s a place for likeminded women to chat about natural health topics (just like this!) and help each other along the way.
#5 – Eat Nutritious Meals Regularly
As you may have guessed… for those of us working to overcome burnout, what we eat matters. Big time. Getting adequate nutrition from real, whole foods will not only help your body to heal and restore its resilience, but you’ll be protecting yourself from the stress induced by modern processed foods. Yes – processed foods add to inflammation and the “hidden stress” experienced by our bodies!
Foods to include. In a nutshell, you’ll want to make sure your diet is rich in vegetables, good quality animal protein (free range and organic, if possible) – this includes eggs and organ meats, traditional fats (such as ghee, grass fed tallow and coconut oil), and of course whole fruits. Increasing sodium intake from good quality, unrefined sea salt can also help with regulating blood pressure if you’re prone to dizzy spells on standing or strong salt cravings. However, if you have high or normal blood pressure it’s best to consult your primary care practitioner first!
To learn more about our dietary approach and to get started with an ancestral aka “paleo” diet, download our 3 Day Paleo Meal Plan (it’s free!).
Foods to avoid. On the other hand, you’ll want to steer clear of inflammatory foods such as wheat and processed flour, processed dairy, refined sugar, seed oils (such as sunflower and cotton seed oil), and GMO products such as soy and corn.
It’s also important to make sure you’re eating regularly, as drops in blood sugar trigger our stress-response system to up cortisol production. We want to limit this as much as possible! So while you may have used intermittent fasting in the past, do note that it’s best to stick with regular meals at this time.
#6 – Increase Carbohydrate
While many report feeling great on a low carbohydrate diet (such as a ketogenic diet), going too low in carbs can present problems if you’re in a state of burnout. So if you feel your symptoms of fatigue and poor sleep worsen when your carbohydrate levels drop, it’s worth experimenting with adding those carbs back.
Now… switching to a high carbohydrate diet may not be the answer, particularly if you’re consuming refined carbohydrates! This can worsen blood sugar regulation issues and in turn worsen burnout (by stimulating the HPA axis to produce more cortisol and regulate falling blood sugar).
However, a diet with a moderate carbohydrate level (up to 30% carbohydrate, which comes to 150g for a 2,000 calorie diet) using whole food sources will support your energy and blood sugar levels while you recover your resilience and heal from burnout.
P.s. If you’re looking for clean, whole food (+paleo approved!) carbohydrate sources to incorporate into your diet, head on over to this post for a complete list + free cheatsheet.
#7 – Get Plenty of Sleep + Create An Evening Routine
Taking adequate rest, at least 8 hours per night, is crucial to restoring resilience and healing from burnout. And it’s not hard to see why – rest is the time for our nervous system to relax, and our body to regenerate + restore. Taking too little sleep, especially when we’re experiencing burnout, can run us into the ground in no time at all!
However chances are that sleep is not something that you’re having much luck with at this time. In fact, one of the most common symptoms of burnout or HPA axis dysregulation is interrupted sleep patterns. This is because the repeated and chronic triggering of the stress response disrupts our diurnal cortisol rhythm (too little cortisol in the morning or too much at night).
One strategy we recommend for easing back into restful sleep is cultivating a restorative evening routine. While it may take a little time and patience at first, creating this routine around sleep and relaxing your nervous system in the evening will help to put your sleep patterns back on track!
Related: How To Sleep Better | 5 Natural Tips
#8 – Decrease (or eliminate) Caffeine Intake
When healing from burnout, we’ve discussed how important it is to limit stressors. And while the thought of kicking your beloved caffeine habit may seem a stress in itself, your body will thank you for it!
While in general we don’t consider coffee (unsweetened, of course) to be a problem food, when our body is weakened by chronic stress it’s best not to add caffeine to the mix. This means reducing (or eliminating) caffeine in the form of coffee and other drinks such as black and green tea.
Watch: Is Coffee Healthy?
Herbal teas are a great alternative as they are naturally free of caffeine and have their own healing properties. Liquorice root tea in particular is a good choice for supporting burnout and the resulting imbalance on cortisol rhythms (and energy) throughout the day. What it actually does is increase the level of cortisol circulating in our system, not by increasing its production by the adrenals but by slowing its breakdown.
#9 – Take Adaptogenic Herbs
Adaptogenic herbs or “adaptogens” have been used in traditional disciplines such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayuvedic Medicine for centuries to restore physical resilience – and modern studies are now confirming their efficacy!
Put simply, adaptogenic herbs help our bodies to adapt to stress more effectively and maintain balance. They work by influencing many organs of body systems and increasing our resilience to whatever it is we’re encountering in our day-to-day life. They are truly adaptable!
Popular adaptogenic herbs for supporting HPA axis function and bringing us back to a state of resilience include Ashwagandha, Rhodiola and Siberian Ginseng.
#10 – Incorporate Supplements
When the body is in a state of burnout, there are some key nutrients that you can use to support your recovery. Below are two key nutrients you can boost through your diet, or simply by taking an over-the-counter supplement. However, please consult your primary care practitioner if your situation is complex and you’re unsure about adding supplements to your regime.
- Vitamin C: our adrenal glands are rich stores of Vitamin C in the body, a potent antioxidant that is essential in the production of adrenal hormones. Vitamin C is also important for counteracting oxidative damage during times of stress. Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of Vitamin C, however you may opt for additional support with a nutritional supplement.
- B Vitamins (in particular active B5 or “Pantethine“): this active form of B5 is considered one of the most important nutrients in supporting adrenal health, due to its role in the production of adrenal hormones. Natural sources of B5 include chicken liver, oily cold water fish (such as salmon) and avocados, however you may also want to investigate taking supplemental Pantethine to boost your recovery.
So there you have it. If any of these strategies have worked for you, we’d love to hear!