As a chef and a nutritionist, I know first hand how much energy it can take to cook nourishing food for yourself and your family. And as a single mom and entrepreneur, I can tell you I also know how many nights I didn’t cook for anyone (especially myself) when I was suffering from burn-out. It’s a vicious cycle- you know that high quality food will bring you energy, but you’re too tired to cook it. So you open your bag of chips or put on a packet of noodles, eat nutrient deficient food, and your energy continues to stay low.
After twenty years of private nutrition practice and teaching culinary literacy skills to thousands of exhausted people of all genders, I can say for sure that well-nourished bodies- bodies that are fuelled by whole, alive, real food, avoid burn-out better and recover from exhaustion and illness faster than those fuelled by processed, packaged, beige, bland food products. Those products, often billed as “quick meal solutions”, are so often laden with salt, chemicals, and rancid oils, and deficient in the very things that create energy for you. They are temping, though, when we are too tired to cook or even eat much. So what is a tired person to do? How do we feed ourselves as we recover from burnout, without burning ourselves out from feeding ourselves?
Before we get into the kitchen and use up the little energy we may have reserved over the day, it is important to understand the WHY behind food and exhaustion. Our endocrine system is an intricate network of chemicals (hormones) and signals that tell our body what to do when. This system acts like an army. The general of your army is the hypothalamus gland, located in your brain, near your brain stem. It waits for information that signals you are under stress, and then tells the pituitary, an endocrine gland in the same area, to send alert messages to the adrenal glands, which sit atop your kidneys. The adrenal glands release hormones like cortisol, which regulates the stress response, and adrenaline and norepinephrine, which put you into fight or flight or rest and digest mode. This response is amazing and is used to get you out of tight, scary or threatening situations by shifting your energy to your heart and limbs so you can flee or fight the offending troops (stress). The problem is, the hypothalamus does not know the difference between a life-or-death threat, and a day to day threat like being late for work, or losing your kid’s homework, or being chronically upset with your spouse. So the response continues to happen, and eventually, the messages you are sending your body become muddled. The more stressed you become chronically, the more this pattern continues, and eventually, the system wears down. When this happens, your adrenal glands become tired and secrete too much or not enough cortisol, which leads to a poor adaptive stress response, and, over time, exhaustion. Basically the troops throw in the towel.
Where does food fit into this picture, then? In two big ways.
First, nutrients in whole foods, like dark green leafy vegetables, grass fed meat or high-quality fats act like spark plugs in the mitochondria of your cell, where energy is created. When we do not consume this type of food, we literally are not feeding our troops. When energy is not created efficiently, then, we rely on external sources to give us “fake” energy such as caffeine and sugar. This fake energy is short lasting, and only serves to tax our adrenal glands further by forcing our body to release more adrenaline. We get an energy spike and then a crash. And the cycle continues. Think about a kid at a birthday party and the crash that happens once they get home.
Secondly, when we do not consume the nutrients we need, our other systems suffer. Our immunity can decrease, creating the chance for more colds and flus, and our digestive system can become impaired. An overgrowth of harmful bacteria can occur in our gastrointestinal system, creating more bad bacteria, and killing off the good bacteria that is responsible for keeping our immunity, our brain function, our inflammation levels and our energy in check. So another vicious cycle.
So if we are chronically tired, but wanting to try to consume more energy-giving food, what can we do? Here are some steps.
Lastly, go easy on yourself. Mastery of a new skill does not happen in one step and you are already tired. Even if all you do is drink a little water, or breathe a little more, or eat an apple, that is better than what you did the day before. Recovery from exhaustion is complicated, takes time and a really good support network of health practitioners, friends and family. Sending repeated signals to your body that all is well will eventually create more space. Space where JOY can creep in and create the kind of life you deserve to have.