How to avoid burnout. Nutrition and lifestyle tips to manage stress
Recently, Jacinda Ardern hit world headlines as she announced she would be standing down from office as New Zealand’s Prime Minister. The 42-year-old, whose time in office saw her handling of the aftermath of the country’s worst ever mass shooting, a deadly volcanic eruption and the Covid-19 pandemic, said on 19 January that she no longer had enough “in the tank” to do her job justice.
Though Ardern, who also gave birth while in office, didn’t explicitly refer to burnout as the reason for her decision to quit politics, the public and media have widely interpreted her resignation speech as a reference to it.
What is the difference between stress and burnout
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.
If we suffer from stress over a long period of time and do not take steps (or don’t have the tools) to manage our stress levels, this 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. 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.
Managing stress and treating burnout
The good news is that tweaks to your diet and a few lifestyle interventions can help to manage symptoms of stress and of burnout. Here are 5 of our top tips:
Be mindful of when you eat as well as what you eat
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.
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.
Start the day with a breakfast that is high in protein, with plenty of healthy fats and fibre which will help to manage blood sugar levels. Also, 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.
Eat the rainbow
Research suggests that eating a diet high in phytochemical intake (a.k.a plenty of different coloured whole fruits and vegetables), may help boost mood, reduce your risk of anxiety, and even help treat depression. We can increase the phytochemical content of our diets by simply eating a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the week. Eating green leafy vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds will also help you to achieve daily levels of B Vitamins, Zinc and Magnesium that have been shown to help control anxiety.
Lack of sleep leads to increased levels of cortisol, more irritability, and dependence on stimulants to get through the day. Of course, it can be difficult to sleep when your mind is filled with worry, but trying to create a good sleep hygiene routine such as avoiding screens and stimulants in the hours before bedtime and ensuring your bedroom is quiet, dark and around 18°C will all help.
Develop a daily mindfulness or meditation practice.
Studies show that meditation alone can effectively decrease cortisol levels and help improve the circadian rhythm. Mindfulness exercises such as a daily gratitude journal can also be an effective way to help balance anxiety. Don’t feel under pressure to record big things, aim for five small things: something like “I’m grateful for the sunshine today” is absolutely fine, so long as it’s true..
Exercise daily and spend time in nature.
When we exercise, the body releases chemicals such as endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, which boost our sense of well-being and suppress hormones that cause anxiety. Sometimes a quick workout video or a walk outside is all you need—twenty minutes of movement goes a long way.
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