Does a steady stream of stress have you feeling helpless, apathetic, and totally exhausted? If so, you could be well on your way to burnout. Today’s “hustle culture,” with its wall-to-wall stress, has significantly increased the number of people feeling used up and empty. In one 2021 survey of 1,500 American workers, more than half said they were feeling burned out. But even though the official definition of this condition focuses solely on people in the workforce, in real life burnout can affect anyone—from parents and caregivers to those dealing with loss, relationship issues, or financial problems.
Burnout is a form of extreme exhaustion caused by constantly feeling overwhelmed and unable to keep up with life’s relentless demands. It’s a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress. Symptoms can include:
- A decreased sense of accomplishment
- Digestive distress
- Feelings of cynicism and emotional distance toward others
- Frequent headaches or body aches
- Lack of enthusiasm or feeling lethargic
- Physical and emotional exhaustion most of the time
- Reduced performance
- Sleep disturbances
- Thinking that nothing you do makes a difference
But burnout doesn’t just undermine your mental and emotional well-being. It can also have real, long-lasting consequences for your health. According to a recent study that appeared in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, burnout has been linked to whole-body inflammation, musculoskeletal pain, weakened immunity, and a higher risk of unhealthy cholesterol levels, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. Other studies have found that burnout increases your odds of developing cardiovascular disease, boosting your risk of atrial fibrillation, atherosclerosis, and heart attack. During one clinical trial involving a group of middle-aged men, researchers discovered that those experiencing burnout were 2.7 times more likely to experience a heart attack than men who weren’t.
How can something like burnout—a condition that’s often considered purely psychological—have such profound effects on your body? The key may lie in something called your HPA axis, which involves your hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands. Studies show that a healthy HPA axis plays a central role in how your body responds to stress by controlling the stress hormone cortisol. These three glands are also designed to work together to balance your hormones, nervous system, and immune response during stressful situations. But research reports that burnout can dampen the responsiveness of the HPA axis during times of chronic stress. And that simply makes burnout worse. Fortunately, there’s help.
Helpful Herbs and Nutrients
The following supplements can reset your HPA axis and lessen the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion caused by burnout. For instance, adaptogenic herbs can improve your ability to deal with stress and burnout. Instead of over-stimulating the HPA axis, they support cortisol production in healthy, natural patterns. Two of the most effective adaptogens are ashwagandha and rhodiola.
Ashwagandha improves the body’s resistance to chronic stress thanks to special plant chemicals known as withanolides. These withanolides serve as important hormone precursors that morph into usable human hormones like cortisol when needed. Because of this ability, ashwagandha modulates how hormones function during times of stress, helping to keep the body—and especially the HPA axis—in balance. This was shown during a randomized, double-blind trial of 64 volunteers with a history of frequent stress. Each participant was given either ashwagandha or a placebo. After 60 days, stress surveys of those taking the herb indicated an average 76 percent drop in the physical symptoms of stress, a 69 percent reduction in stress-related insomnia, 68 percent less social dysfunction, and a 79 percent improvement in depression. Cortisol levels also fell significantly. Those in the placebo group experienced only negligible improvements. But to get these burnout benefits, it’s important to search out a supplement standardized to contain 5 percent withanolides.
Rhodiola, on the other hand, has been shown to alleviate anxiety and restore energy. In fact, a single dose of rhodiola extract—taken prior to a stressful event like test taking or public speaking—can prevent stress-induced disruptions in performance. But rhodiola has also shown positive results with long-term use, which is beneficial for those suffering from chronic stress and burnout. One double-blind trial of 161 men that appeared in the journal Phytomedicine reported that rhodiola supplementation reduced stress and fatigue, improved memory, enhanced concentration and physical fitness, and increased overall well-being. Research also shows that rhodiola stimulates the immune system, enabling the body’s own defenses to ward off the adverse effects of stress. To get all that rhodiola has to offer, however, it’s important to choose a supplement standardized to contain at least 3 percent rosavins and 1 percent salidroside.
Adaptogens, however, aren’t the only supplements that help counteract burnout. The following can provide the HPA axis (and especially the adrenals) with the tools it needs to heal and thrive. A key sign that adrenal burnout is present is getting irritable when hungry (“hangry”). That’s when adrenal support is especially critical.
Adrenal glandular extract. If you are experiencing adrenal exhaustion due to burnout, consider an adrenal glandular extract. Adrenal glandulars contain many beneficial substances and supply the raw materials that your adrenal glands need to heal. But because supplemental glandulars are derived from cows, it is critical to obtain a pure, safe source with guaranteed potency. Check the supplement label for a glandular derived from free-range-raised Argentinian cattle to ensure the highest-quality adrenal extract.
B vitamins. Because chronic stress depletes the body’s vitamin B levels, supplementing with a comprehensive array of this family of nutrients can support mood and energy in those with burnout. In one study review that appeared in the journal Nutrients, researchers found that supplementing with the Bs was especially beneficial for boosting mood in people at high risk for burnout. Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) is especially important.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a precursor hormone produced by the adrenal glands and it’s the building block from which estrogen and testosterone are made. But as critical as DHEA is, burnout can lead to its depletion. One reason for this is that, as cortisol levels go up, DHEA levels go down. Making matters worse, DHEA production declines with age. However, maintaining healthy DHEA levels through supplementation can help neutralize cortisol’s immune-suppressing effect, thereby improving your resistance to stress. As a bonus, DHEA has been shown to decrease cholesterol, boost immunity, increase the sensitivity of cells to insulin, improve cognition, protect bone density, enhance mood, and boost libido.
Licorice root supports healthy levels of stress hormones, especially cortisol. Studies have found that licorice prolongs the half-life of cortisol by inhibiting an enzyme known as 11 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase. This, in turn, prevents the release of substances in the body that cause inflammation. One human study found that licorice supports healthy adrenal function by increasing cortisol levels in healthy women. Another small crossover study of 20 healthy men and women found that supplementing with licorice extract for one week also increased DHEA levels.
Rehmannia supports the HPA axis during times of prolonged stress. According to Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology, rehmannia influences the way cortisol interacts with the pituitary gland, preventing damage to the pituitary gland and the adrenals. Other research suggests that rehmannia not only balances the HPA axis, it also supports healthy BDNF levels and helps prevent—and possibly even reverse—the depression commonly experienced during burnout.
8 Healthy Habits to Prevent Burnout
If you find that you’re starting to experience chronic stress, try adding these strategies to your daily routine. If these changes—along with the supplements listed here—don’t provide relief, it’s wise to get professional help to recharge your life and reset your internal GPS.
- Develop strategies to nip stress in the bud. A good place to start? Learn to meditate for at least 20 minutes per day.
- Avoid indulging in unhealthy habits. Stress, especially unrelenting stress, can increase your vulnerability to alcohol, recreational drugs, and tobacco use. While these substances might provide temporary relief, over time they can worsen burnout.
- Eat a nutrient-dense diet. Burnout can deplete many critical nutrients such as magnesium and the B vitamins. A healthy diet filled with fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and high-quality protein can help maintain healthy nutrient levels, even in the face of burnout.
- Get moving. Exercise has been shown to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels in the brain. This matters, because BDNF protects the neurons that transmit information to every part of your body, including the brain itself.
- Sleep well. Poor sleep is one of the hallmarks of burnout. Make sleep a priority by improving your sleep hygiene. Strive to get seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night.
- Foster healthy relationships. Cultivating supportive relationships can help you feel valued, heard, and understood, especially during times of stress.
- Learn to say “no.” These two little letters can go a long way toward preventing you from becoming overwhelmed by life’s demands. Simply saying “no” helps you set personal boundaries and provides a sense of control over your life.
- Make a list of where you put your energy and attention. Have two columns: In the left column, list those things that don’t feel good. In the right column, place things that do feel good and exciting. Instead of focusing your energy on the things that don’t feel good, focus on those that you feel good and passionate about. That will help take you to the place your psyche is seeking to attain!