• PERFORMANCE
  • HEALTH & NUTRITION

Where are you sitting on the burnout scale?

If you’re suffering from stress or burnout, it’s important to understand what’s happening physiologically so you can pinpoint what stage of dysregulation the body is in and support yourself in finding balance again. Knowing this, you can work to implement small lifestyle changes that can make all the difference in helping your body find homeostasis.

Alarm

The first stage of burnout is the body's initial response to the various stressors we encounter, be it looming deadlines at work, financial worries, or personal conflicts. Stress arousal can manifest both physically and psychologically with persistent irritability and overwhelm becoming unwelcome guests in our daily lives. Other signs of stage one burnout can include teeth grinding, poor concentration, and digestive discomfort.

What’s happening physiologically during this stage has a lot to do with cortisol, our body’s chief stress hormone. By orchestrating our body's response to the perceived threats, cortisol drives a cascade of hormonal reactions that activate the body’s fight or flight response. The activation of this stress response is what causes the acute signs of stress that most of us are familiar with (think: your heart rate increases and you start feeling hyper-alert, perhaps you start to sweat more or experience digestive disturbances). But the alarm stage tends to be a slippery slope that we navigate without much awareness – which can become problematic since the alarm stage is really a warning sign that our body is struggling to cope with increased demands.

Resistance

The ‘resistance’ stage is marked by energy conservation. As the stress from stage one persists, our bodies continue to react, but now in a manner aimed at preserving what little energy remains. This stage is characterized by a shift in priorities within our body's intricate systems.

One noticeable change during this stage is the redirection of resources away from the production of sex hormones towards the production of stress hormones like cortisol. While the endocrine system still functions, there's a significant decline in the levels of DHEA and other sex hormones, signaling a subtle but impactful shift in hormonal balance.

Abnormal cortisol peaks are a hallmark of the resistance stage, whether it's elevated first morning cortisol or erratic fluctuations throughout the day, our bodies struggle to maintain a healthy balance. Some may experience cortisol peaks at night, while others may find themselves waking in the early hours of the morning – but most people in this stage experience the sense of feeling “tired but wired”. This phenomenon is likely attributed to lack of good quality sleep in combination with a reliance on caffeine to stay alert, which only leads to exhaustion when the evening rolls around.

Other signs of the resistance stage include apathy, procrastination, persistent tiredness, and social withdrawal. At this point, we’re still able to function and participate in a normal, active life – but the imbalance in hormones we experience can significantly start to impact quality of life.

While stage one sounds the alarm that the body needs extra support to manage stress, stage two marks a crucial turning point in the progression of burnout. As for how long this stage might last – it could be several months or even years. But the earlier we intervene, the more success we have in protecting the body from the longer-term effects of burnout.

Exhaustion

When the body has exhausted its resources attempting to fight off the effects of stress, there comes a time when it simply runs out of resources to manufacture stress hormones. After coping with stress for a pro-longed period, it’s only natural that the body enters exhaustion. Here, the weight of stress becomes all too much and the signs we see as we work our way down the burnout scale move from whispers and subtle cues to persistent cries for help.

With the lack of capacity to support the stress response any longer, hormone levels begin to drop. The exhaustion stage is characterized by subnormal cortisol levels, a flat cortisol curve and low levels of both DHEA and thyroid hormones in some cases. During this final stage, feelings of extreme tiredness, irritability, low mood, weight changes, apathy and disinterest take over and the hormonal insufficiency impacts almost every part of the body.

By acknowledging these signs of exhaustion and seeking support, it’s possible to start restoring normal body function. While it can take time to restore resilience and repair the accumulative damage caused by ongoing stress, it is possible with the right tools.

How to support the body

  • Take adaptogens: These compounds support the body’s ability to adapt to stress. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen that has been rooted in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. In clinical trials, Ashwagandha has been shown to reduce cortisol by up to 30.5%.
  • Reduce caffeine: Caffeine has been shown to increase cortisol, so reducing your intake can help normalize the production of stress hormones. Avoid caffeine 8-10 hours before you sleep. Caffeine can remain in your bloodstream for several hours before it is cleared by the body. Leaving enough time between your last coffee and when you plan on going to sleep will encourage the body’s natural circadian rhythm and can reduce irregular cortisol patterns.
  • Time your workouts: The timing of your workouts matter. Exercising in the morning when cortisol levels are naturally at their peak will encourage and establish a healthy cortisol pattern. If mornings aren’t possible, be sure to have enough time to wind down after your evening workout before bed.
  • Eat more protein: Protein has long been researched for its blood sugar regulating effects, with studies showing that by stabilizing blood sugar levels, eating enough protein can reduce the need for cortisol production. Research also shows that tryptophan, an amino acid found in protein-rich foods, can influence serotonin in the brain – the neurotransmitter that supports mood. By increasing this calming neurotransmitter, dietary sources of tryptophan may potentially influence the regulation of cortisol.
  • Support your mitochondria: When stress activates this ‘alarm’ response in your brain, your cells are signaled to produce more energy to help the body respond to stress, which places a heavy burden on mitochondria. Mitochondria are found inside almost every one of your cells, and mitochondria in the adrenal glands are particularly important as they play a role in the regulation of cortisol.
  • Morning sunlight: exposure to sunlight first thing in the morning triggers the release of cortisol, which in turn supports the onset of melatonin later in the day that helps you fall asleep at night.

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