The Science of Burnout
PLUS A STRESS-LOWERING CHECKLIST
We’ve been there—that feeling of going at 120% for weeks, months, or maybe even years while juggling busy schedules, deadlines, responsibilities, and relationships. Some days, the buzz feels like you’re taking flight. But others? It can manifest as overwhelm, exhaustion, cynicism, self-doubt… Simply put? Capital B- burnout.
Luckily, burnout is not a permanent state of being, and with strength, resilience, and the right tools, we can bounce back from it. We tapped in-house nutritionist Colleen Coffey, MS, RDN, LDN, to help us explore the science behind burnout, plus tips for banishing it (spoiler: plant-rich nutrition can help!).
Is Your Check Engine Light On?
To understand how we can beat burnout, first it’s helpful to look at how stress functions in our bodies. Stress starts in the body’s Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal, or HPA, Axis—the place where our central nervous system and endocrine system intertwine. Here, cortisol (a.k.a. the stress hormone) is released, and then expressed in one of two ways: hormetic or chronic.
Think of hormetic stress as good stress. It happens in healthy low doses that keep us temporarily alert (like a morning HIIT workout, cold plunge, or a work deadline), and can actually build tolerance and cell strength to handle longer term stress in the future. On the other hand, chronic stress—the always-there, something’s-weighing-on-you kind of stress that comes from long-term exposure to low-grade stress—negatively impacts our physical and mental health.
When exposed to stress for extended periods of time, it’s inevitable that our body’s “check engine light” (a.k.a., the signal that helps us identify that we’re on the path to burnout) will turn on. It might look like insomnia, anxiety, or irritability, or perhaps it’ll manifest as digestive issues, brain fog, or feelings of withdrawal.
When we tap into our body intelligence—by being mindful and paying attention to our body's wants and needs—we can tune in and respond to the signals the body is sending us during periods of chronic, low grade stress, and then take action to beat burnout.
When Busy Leads to Burnout
The interplay between chronic stress, the HPA Axis, and the subsequent cascade of physical and emotional consequences that lead to burnout can be explained with the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) Theory. The GAS Theory, coined by medical doctor and researcher Hans Selye, describes the three-step process that occurs in the body when it encounters any kind of stress:
- Phase 1: Alarm - The sympathetic nervous system (what activates your “fight-or-flight” response) and HPA Axis are activated in response to a stressor, like a moved-up deadline at work or an especially intense cardio session.
- Phase 2: Resistance - To handle the stressor at hand, the body releases cortisol, triggering a fight-or-flight response. Cortisol keeps pumping out until a negative feedback loop occurs in the HPA Axis that indicates to your body that it can return to a state of calm.
- Phase 3: Burnout - When that negative feedback loop isn’t activated (read: chronic exposure to physical or mental stress), the body continues to mobilize its resources, leading to adrenal insufficiency to combat stress. This can eventually manifest as a feeling of exhaustion and burnout.
Your Stress-Lowering Checklist
In order to avoid reaching Phase 3-burnout, focus on nourishing your mind and body, as well as avoiding exposure to chronic low grade stress. Here, three ways to do so:
- Remove physical stressors from your diet. Inflammatory foods, refined sugars, toxic additives and chemicals, and even imbalanced, blood sugar-spiking meals can all contribute as a physical stressor on your body. Instead, opt for nutrient-dense, plant-rich meals that nourish the gut, ease inflammation, and balance your hormones (like the meals you get on Sakara’s Signature Nutrition Program).
- Utilize adaptogens when necessary. Adaptogens are plant-substances that help our bodies manage stress (helping us avoid moving from Phase 2 to Phase 3) and restore balance. Take the cordyceps mushrooms and ashwagandha found in our Energy Protein Super Bars, for example. Cordyceps mushrooms target stress head-on and support stamina by increasing the production of ATP, the molecule that powers the body’s energetic function. Ashwagandha helps balance cortisol and ease adrenal dysfunction.
- Aim for 7-8 hours of high-quality sleep every night. Sleep decreases cortisol levels and eases our mind and body so we can avoid burnout. To support restorative sleep, try supplementing with magnesium, as found in our Daily Evening Pack of our Performance System; magnesium can regulate cortisol levels, helping relieve toxic stress symptoms and promoting restful sleep.
When you feed your system with nutrients that put you at peak mental and physical function, you can push your limits without burnout and be at the top of your game—showing up as your best self at work, at home, and everywhere in between.