Combating burnout with nutrition

A significant threat to workplace safety and productivity emanates from an unexpected source – stress.


The president and editor in chief of Huffington Post – Arianna Huffington was so exhausted from running her business, she collapsed. She hit her head on her desk, broke her cheekbone and needed stitches on her right eye.

Multiple surveys on work in the industrialised nations has shown that burnout is an increasing phenomenon in organisations. A 2013 survey of HR directors in the UK found that nearly 30% reported burnout as being widespread in their organisations.

What is burnout?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines Burnout as follows:
“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Burnout is the result of prolonged work-related stress. Burnout sufferers get emotionally and physically exhausted. In many cases performance reduces significantly. Burnout is likely to result from situations where there are too many work and/or personal demands sometimes exacerbated by limited resource availability – no support, not enough time, or not the right training. Burnout suffers’ attitude is likely to become unsupportive, they may take unnecessary risks and they may even become perpetrators of bullying.

Why does burnout matter?

Burnout has a significant impact on the individual suffering from this level of exhaustion and can require weeks or months away from work in order to recover.

Burnout impacts organisations

The impact of burnout in organisations goes way beyond loss of hours for the specific individual suffering burnout – rather it extends to the impact they have on the people around them, the teams they lead, the colleagues they work with and customers they interact with.
Sufferers can lose key accounts, expose an organisation to legal action regarding bullying or inappropriate behaviour at work, and impact an organisation’s reputation.

Burnout impacts the physical body

Stress is the response in the body to situations that are perceived to be threatening. When the body senses a threatening event the “fight or flee” response is triggered, and the adrenal glands release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
If the threat to be dealt with is a short-lived event, this response can be good as the hormones will provide us with a burst of energy to deal with the threat; and then the hormone levels will subside to normal level.
However if the stress remains for a prolonged period of time, the adrenal glands will continue releasing cortisol and adrenaline until the glands become depleted leading to a situation known as adrenal fatigue.
Adrenal fatigue can be experienced as: extreme tiredness (no matter how long you sleep), muscle weakness, anxiety/nervousness, sugar/fat/salt cravings and a propensity to develop dependence on substances like alcohol or caffeine.

Combating burnout using nutrition

The key to dealing with burnout is to deal with the stress that set the chain of events in motion in the first place. Key tools for combating stress include: sleep, music, exercise, nature, talking, and food.

Food as a tool to combat stress

The reason the body is feeling stressed is because it is out of balance – cortisol has been in overdrive and has started eroding our normal responses – resulting in lowered immune system, fatigue, muscle tension, increased blood pressure and insomnia.
Food choices need to restore adrenal function and manage blood sugar levels.
Adaptogens – plants, roots or herbs that work with your adrenal glands to bring hormones back into balance. Different herbs provide different benefits e.g:

  • Turmeric – boosts brain function and helps to reduce depression
  • Ginseng – calmness, improved memory and immune system
  • Ashwagandha – helps to reduce anxiety
  • Astragalus – can help combat fatigue
  • Goji berry – boosts energy

Resilience building – some foods deal with the effects of stress like lowered immune system, high blood pressure, etc. Important nutrients that help achieve these results include:

  • Vitamin C – helps lower cortisol and boosts the immune system. Citrus fruits are good sources.
  • Complex carbohydrates – encourages the release of serotonin which is calming and reduces blood pressure. Try whole grains, vegetables and fruits.
  • Omega-3 – has been shown to reduce stress hormones and can protect against heart disease and depression. Foods to try include: nuts and seeds – e.g. pistachio, almonds; and fatty fish e.g. tuna or salmon.
  • Magnesium – Magnesium works against fatigue and headaches. Good food sources include green vegetables and soybeans.
  • Protein – the amino acids in protein rich foods help repair tense muscles and tissues and support hormone balance. Sources include: Lentils, pulses, seeds, lean white meat, fish and eggs.

Foods that can exacerbate stress symptoms

Some foods perpetuate stress symptoms and can create unhealthy cycles which make matters worse. Top foods to avoid include:

Refined carbohydrates and sugar – Ironically, we crave sugar and refined carbs when stressed. This is because our bodies know these are fast acting forms of energy and our bodies think we are about to “fight or flee”. Sadly though the fast action of these energy sources lead to a crash in energy very soon afterwards leaving us hungry for more – i.e. craving the next fix. This is a road towards obesity and out of control cortisol and insulin levels

Alcohol – Alcohol causes more cortisol to be released into the body resulting in heightened appetite, lower metabolism, dehydration, depressed immune system and messed up insulin levels. Also, it reacts with the brain’s reward systems causing reinforcing effects and can lead to dependency or addiction.

Caffeine – Caffeine also increases the body’s levels of cortisol, while at the same time reducing absorption of Adenosine which calms the body. Caffeine increases dopamine hormone in the body acting like amphetamines – typically leading to dependence.

What else?

I would strongly encourage seeking help to deal with the situation that is causing stress. For this, I would always advise recruiting additional support

Mentors or coaches can be a good source of objective support. It might also be as simple as speaking with a trusted friend to help put things in perspective. The thing not to do is burying one’s head in the sand hoping things will get better on their own. This hardly ever happens.
The first step can be the hardest. Just decide to take one small step and go from there. Your mental health underpins all that you wish for yourself – don’t leave it to chance.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SW1Y & NW9
Written by Ola Molade
London SW1Y & NW9

Ola is a qualified Nutritionist and Transformational Coach who focuses on supporting people that work in high stress environments. Ola offers face-face and/or online consultations that help people wishing to develop new habits in relation to food and lifestyle choices.

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