What to Eat and (What to Avoid) When You’re Feeling Burned Out
Work-related stress and anxiety are at an all-time high. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that the World Health Organization (WHO) deemed burnout an official medical diagnosis. We often blame burnout on external factors, such as workload, relationships, and stressors as simple as rush hour traffic.
But Dr. Nick Bitz, Chief Scientific Officer at Youtheory®, explains that stress is not what happens to you, but what happens inside you.When you’re exposed to a stressful event, the body triggers its fight-or-flight mechanism and the adrenal glands secrete stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline).
“In the short term, this is extremely beneficial and provides the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to a perceived threat,” Dr. Bitz tells Clean Plates. “But when the stress response continues unabated over weeks or months, the adrenal glands will naturally deplete their hormonal reserves and will fail to keep up with the demands of the body.”
That depletion of hormones is known as adrenal fatigue, and it results in tiredness (despite getting enough sleep), muscle weakness, lightheadedness or dizziness, nervousness, salt and sugar cravings, and an overreliance on stimulants such as caffeine to keep you going through the day.
So how do we beat burnout?
Well, stress management is best approached from multiple angles, Dr. Bitz tells Clean Plates. If you’re experiencing burnout, you should look to your current exercise routine, sleep schedule, diet, relationships, and overall workload. But if you’re looking for an impactful place to start, focus on nutrition.
3 Foods To Combat Burnout
Instead of stress eating, eat to reduce stress. Many different foods can help take the edge out of your day by providing your body with the nutrients it needs to reach and maintain homeostasis (physiological balance). When it comes to stress, that involves lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, untensing your muscles, and quieting stress hormones — here are three of the top foods for beating burnout.
1. Dark green and leafy vegetables
Dark-colored vegetables, especially leafy greens like spinach and kale, contain high concentrations of folic acid, a nutrient that helps your body produce adequate levels of serotonin. Serotonin is one of the “happy chemicals” that helps to regulate your mood, sleep, memory, and more. Serotonin deficiencies may lead to depression, cravings for sweet and starchy foods, lack of sleep, low self-esteem, and panic attacks.
So if you needed another reason to include greens in your meals on the regular, know that leafy produce can literally contribute to your happiness and fend off the unpleasant symptoms of burnout.
“Adaptogens” refers to a group of plants, particularly roots and herbs, that help your body resist stressors. These plants, such as ashwagandha, maca, rhodiola, and ginseng, can work wonders when it comes to burnout.
Dr. Bitz tells Clean Plates that adaptogenic botanicals are invaluable for stress management because they feed the adrenal glands and optimize adrenal output, effectively combating the underlying cause of burnout: adrenal fatigue.
“When you start using adaptogens, you’ll notice an almost immediate shift in your mental and physical energy,” Dr. Bitz says. “And in time, you’ll feel stronger and more capable of handling stress. The key is to find one adaptogen that is right for you and to stick with it daily for an extended amount of time.”
3. Hot herbal and spiced teas
Several herbs and spices are known for their relaxing properties. Chamomile, in particular, has incredible anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and has been proven to reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Plus, doesn’t just the thought of curling up with a warm cup of tea sound soothing? Just make sure you aren’t mindlessly scrolling your phone while drinking it, as social media is emerging as a key factor in burnout.
Try out different herbs and spices to see which ones work best for you: Peppermint, lavender, and turmeric are all known to promote relaxation and focus.
3 Foods To Avoid When You’re Burnt Out
Just like you should reach for certain foods when you’re burnt out, you should also steer far, far away from particular foods. Here are the top three to avoid next time you’re dealing with high levels of stress or lacking motivation.
1. Refined sugar and carbohydrates
From milk to nut butter to bacon (yes, bacon), sugar can be found in virtually anything. And though sugar isn’t bad in all forms — in refined forms, sugar and simple carbohydrates can do some serious damage to your body.
It’s normal to crave sugar and carb-heavy foods when you’re stressed or depressed, as this is often your body’s way of telling you it needs something, such as more energy or a specific nutrient. It’s usually okay to satisfy your cravings, but when you’re experiencing burnout, sugar and refined carbs can make things much worse. In fact, sugar is known to perpetuate anxiety and contribute to depression.
This may, in part, be due to the sugar rush followed by a hard crash and burn. The roller coaster of physiological ups and downs (for example, blood sugar fluctuations) makes your body work harder to complete its normal functions and can leave you feeling groggy, unfocused, irritable, and tired.
While a quick cup of coffee might seem like just the thing you need to get through another long day, be wary of the potential after-effects. Caffeine — especially when consumed in the afternoon — can quickly spike your energy levels, only to leave you dragging after a hard crash.
Coffee itself doesn’t cause burnout or adrenal fatigue (it’s actually healthy!), but it can exacerbate the symptoms, especially if you are particularly sensitive to caffeine. If you notice that an extra cup of coffee does nothing or makes you feel worse, it’s time to cut back. Give your body a break from constant caffeine consumption.
You’ll most likely be better served by a quick power nap, but only if you nap the right way: Keep afternoon naps under 30 minutes to avoid being pulled out of deep sleep and facing post-nap grogginess.
And if you don’t have time even for a 10-minute nap, give decaf coffee a go and see if it’s really just the familiar taste and warmth you’re after — not so much the caffeine.
When you experience burnout, you might be super tempted to snuggle up on the couch with a glass of wine or hit up happy hour for a cocktail for some well-deserved relaxation. And that’s 100 percent okay once a long stretch of stressful days is over, but it’s probably not the best idea if you have another long day tomorrow.
We probably don’t need to tell you about the effects of alcohol on the body — virtually everyone has experienced a hangover before — but you should keep in mind how those effects relate to burnout.
Alcohol seriously dehydrates you, messes with your blood sugar and insulin levels, wreaks havoc on your digestive system, and depresses your immune system. When you’re already stressed and overworked, your body can’t handle this extra beating. Drinking while burnt out may exacerbate any symptoms you already have and potentially introduce new ones, so it’s best to decline that cocktail until you’ve recovered from burnout.