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A Nutritionist’s Approach to Treating Burnout
Nutritionist Mia Rigden rarely comes across a client who isn’t dealing with the health effects of long-term stress. She’s not surprised: We’re getting hit with stressors from so many sides that stress has become extremely difficult to manage. It’s overwhelming. We’re exhausted. She validates those feelings—and she also knows that leaning into certain habits can ease those feelings and help us cope.
Rigden’s approach is all about nourishment, including what you have for breakfast, getting enough sleep, and engaging with activities, people, and experiences that bring you comfort and joy.
For more from Rigden, check out her online nutrition support groups for moms. We also love her daily nutrition and habit notebook, The Well Journal.
Nutrition and Lifestyle Tips to Manage Stress
The term “burnout” is most often applied in the workplace, but in this work-from-home era, burnout has come home with us: Between relentless Zoom calls, homeschooling, and dreary news feeds, we can’t seem to catch a break. Burnout is the direct result of prolonged exposure to stress. And while most of us know that stress impacts our health and well-being, we tend to underestimate the degree to which it affects us.
To fully grasp the impact of stress, chronic stress, and burnout, it’s important to understand the science.
Cortisol, our primary stress hormone, is made by the adrenal glands and regulated by the HPA axis, which connects our adrenals to the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in our brain. When we experience a stressful event, whether environmental, physical, or emotional, our HPA axis directs the adrenals to increase cortisol output. That increased cortisol elevates blood glucose levels and stimulates the fight-or-flight response. In fight-or-flight, the body turns off functions that aren’t helpful in an immediate life-or-death situation, like digestion, immune responsiveness, reproduction, and growth. When the stressful event is perceived to be over, the HPA axis works to restore homeostasis.
The effects of stress are cumulative, and when we experience chronic (long-term) stress, we build resistance to cortisol fluctuations, making it more difficult for the HPA axis to bring the body back to normal levels. Nonessential bodily functions are also impaired. The immune system might be working at a lower capacity, leaving us vulnerable to illness and inflammation. Digestion can slow down, leading to bacterial overgrowth, bloating, nutrition imbalances, leaky gut, food sensitivities, and other digestive issues. In women, fertility may be affected, and PMS symptoms may be heightened.
Chronic stress manifests differently for everyone. Symptoms include general fatigue, anxiety, trouble sleeping, low libido, weight gain or loss, infertility, and skin issues, like acne and eczema. Over time, more-serious complications may develop. Many of these stress-related ailments are treatable conditions on their own—we can adopt a new skin-care routine for the acne or work on our sleep hygiene for better rest—but when we address the symptoms alone, we aren’t solving the problem. I think of it as stress-symptom whack-a-mole: fighting individual problems as they develop without treating the root cause.
Prolonged stress paired with a lack of stress-management tools can result in burnout: a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion that can impact our mood, immune system, hormones, sleep, and more. Many of our cultural norms are actually signs of burnout: feeling like we need coffee first thing in the morning; other stimulants, like sugar and refined carbohydrates, to keep our energy up throughout the day; and a glass of wine or a cocktail to unwind in the evening. Despite our exhaustion, anxiety can keep us up at night, leaving us tired in the morning and looking for that jolt of caffeine to get started. Other signs of burnout include lack of motivation or energy, cravings for sweet and salty foods, brain fog, and memory loss.
Almost everyone who comes to my nutrition practice has experienced some level of burnout or chronic stress. This is especially true of working mothers trying to balance their full-time jobs and full-time kids.
MANAGING STRESS AND TREATING BURNOUT
The good news is that symptoms of burnout and chronic stress can be improved with dietary and lifestyle interventions that are good for you regardless of your stress levels. I normally recommend a combination of these approaches. They work in tandem to decrease stress levels and support the proper functioning of the body’s stress response.
Cortisol has a natural circadian rhythm much as your sleep cycle does: Levels are highest in the morning, which helps you get out of bed and get moving, and lowest in the evening, when it’s time to rest. What, how, and when you eat plays a major role in regulating cortisol and maintaining a healthy cortisol rhythm. So if you’re looking for a new way to stress-eat, this is your ticket.
Start the day with a breakfast that helps manage blood sugar levels. Think low sugar and high protein, with plenty of healthy fats and fiber.
Make lunch the biggest meal of the day. Include protein, healthy fats, whole grains, and vegetables.
Have a lighter and earlier dinner to promote a restful night’s sleep. When we eat, our cortisol levels naturally increase a little. If we eat too close to bedtime, it can disrupt sleep. Try to leave at least three hours between dinnertime and bedtime to give your body time to digest its food and allow your cortisol levels to decrease.
Aim for both a variety and an abundance of vegetables in your meals, along with one serving of complete protein per day. Animal protein—like eggs, dairy, fish, poultry, or red meat—offers a full spectrum of amino acids and has the highest bioavailability of nutrients; this means it is more easily absorbed. If you are vegan or vegetarian, make sure to get at least one serving of complementary proteins (like beans and rice) or non-GMO soy products per day to ensure you’re getting all the essential amino acids.
Reduce your intake of caffeine, sugar, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol. These foods are easy to become dependent on. If you’ve ever felt like you needed a coffee, a piece of chocolate, or a glass of wine, you know what I mean. Moderate intake of these foods can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet, but sometimes we need to check in with ourselves. I often find it easier to go cold turkey for a period of time to overcome dependency and curb cravings. (My Reset program is great for this.) The first few days can be rough, but you will find your natural energy soon after—and it’s well worth it.
Eat balanced meals at regular times during the day. And don’t go more than three or four waking hours without eating. This pattern helps regulate your blood sugar levels and maintain a healthy cortisol rhythm.
In addition to a healthy diet, lifestyle interventions are critical for stress management. Here are a few places to start.
Prioritize sleep. Lack of sleep leads to increased levels of cortisol, more irritability, and dependence on stimulants to get through the day.
Do your best to remove unnecessary stressors. Sometimes the triggers are unavoidable, but if you can turn off the news or tune out negative energy, do it.
Make room in your schedule for free time and activities that you truly love. If you like to paint, read novels, journal, ride a bike, or get a manicure, try to find time for it.
Exercise daily and spend time in nature. Sometimes a quick workout video or a walk outside is all you need—twenty minutes of movement goes a long way.
Develop a daily mindfulness or meditation practice. Studies show that meditation alone can effectively decrease cortisol levels and help improve the circadian rhythm.
Since we’re taking a 360-degree approach here, I’d be remiss not to mention supplements that can support the body’s stress response. My favorites are ashwagandha, rhodiola, fish oil, L-theanine, B vitamins, magnesium, and vitamin C. These are most effective when used in conjunction with a healthy diet and stress-management techniques.
Some of these tools might seem easier said than done, and I get that. Start with one thing—maybe breakfast, exercise, or meditation—and build from there. Keep a journal to track your progress, and find support and community where you can. (I make a journal called The Well Journal, which provides space for all of the above.)
Mia Rigden, MS, CNS, is a board-certified nutritionist, health coach, and the founder of RASA, a private nutrition practice based in Los Angeles. She works with clients worldwide via one-on-one coaching, Mom Group (a group nutrition program for mothers), and The Reset, a twenty-one-day whole foods program. Rigden is also the author of The Well Journal and will be releasing a cookbook in 2022.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.