Body & Fitness

Beat burnout

As 2015 draws to a close, many of us feel more frazzled than festive. Natural health practitioners Dr Kathleen Wills and Sandra Clair offer advice on how to prevent and recover from burnout.

At this time of year many of us complain of feeling exhausted. We often dismiss it as an unavoidable by-product of busy modern life – nothing a good night’s sleep or a few days’ holiday won’t fix.

But what if it’s more than that? It may be that you are suffering from hypoadrenia, more commonly known as adrenal fatigue syndrome or adrenal burnout. Symptoms are wide ranging, from difficulty waking up in the morning and being unable to function without caffeine, to cravings for salty treats and having no sex drive. It can even cause a pot belly.

It occurs when we have almost no reserves of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline – which are produced by our adrenal glands and are key for energy production. The adrenal glands produce more than 100 chemical messengers in our body that work together to fight inflammation, support immunity, help maintain healthy blood sugar levels and dictate how we convert food into energy or fat.

Normally, a situation of stress prompts a response by our adrenals that gets us through tough times. But if our reserves are depleted, as with adrenal burnout, it’s like putting a foot on the car’s accelerator to avoid an accident and discovering you’re out of gas. A crash is inevitable.

While adrenal fatigue is thought to be experienced by millions worldwide, many conventional doctors do not recognise the syndrome as a treatable medical condition. Adrenal issues in mainstream medicine are often only recognised when levels of the adrenal hormone cortisol are in the extremes of too little (Addison’s disease) or too much (Cushing’s disease). There are various arguments as to why the condition is not recognised, the most prevalent being that it is not viewed as a significant disease that can be treated with pharmaceutical medications. Yet more than 2000 medical journals and textbooks have been published exploring the effects of low adrenal function.

So what are the causes and who is most at risk? Adrenal burnout occurs when we are subject to situations of prolonged stress and push our bodies beyond endurance – often simply by trying to juggle work and home life while eating poorly and taking no time for relaxation.

It can affect anyone, from young children with full after-school schedules, to the elderly who might have been in and out of hospital with chronic health conditions. However, it is particularly prevalent among those who are high-achieving and goal-obsessed, and don’t take time out for themselves. They may be considered perfectionists. When symptoms occur, they often fight back by exercising even harder and drinking caffeine-laden coffees or energy drinks to keep going – or alcohol to try to relax. That’s exactly what the body can’t tolerate, so symptoms worsen.

A natural or integrative health practitioner can diagnose adrenal burnout through a saliva or urine test. And the good news is that while there is no magic cure, you can rejuvenate your adrenal function naturally. Recovery involves a review of diet, exercise habits and lifestyle. Medicinal plants can be a great support.

Change won’t occur overnight, but depending on the severity of the condition and the sufferer’s lifestyle, recovery will take between three months and two years.

Easy steps to keep burnout at bay in 2016

  1. Eat a protein-filled breakfast daily before 10am.

  2. Aim to get to bed by 9.30pm and sleep for eight to nine hours regularly.

  3. Limit your email and Facebook checking to set hours in the day, and stop completely after 7pm. Every time we check our messages our adrenals respond and produce stress hormones, leading to overproduction.

  4. Restrict caffeine to one coffee or black tea daily in the morning. In the afternoon, swap to green or herbal teas and water – aiming to consume 1.5 litres daily. Medicinal teas that de-stress, relax or re-power naturally are ideal for daily rituals of self-care as they provide hydration with additional therapeutic benefits.

  5. Snack on high-protein foods – such as nuts and seeds – every two to three hours between meals, to keep blood sugars balanced.

  6. Incorporate one relaxation activity into your week, such as yoga, meditation, a walk in nature, massage, or getting a facial.

  7. Consume low glycaemic index foods – those that will not spike up blood sugars, leading to a fast energy boost and quick crash thereafter. This could be as simple as choosing to eat grapefruit and apples rather than bananas and sultanas.

  8. Reflect on physical activities or exercises you have loved in the past, and do some once each week. It might be as basic as dancing in your lounge to some favourite music with your kids!

  9. Before starting each day, make a list of three priorities, and fit in your activities around these items. Try not to get distracted by extra tasks – leave those for another day.

  10. When you can, take a bath before bed with Epsom salts, soft music and candles. Lock the door to keep out disruptions if necessary. The magnesium in Epsom salts helps to restore healthy adrenal function.

Words by Dr Kathleen Wills and Sandra Clair

Photos by Getty Images

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