Burn Out: Tired of Being Tired?

Written By: Barb Sheldon, MA, CHNC

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?

The HPA Axis (Hypothalamic, Pituitary, Adrenal Axis)

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.

Food and the Stress Response

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.

  1. Before you eat, before you cook, breathe. Send a signal to the troops that all is well, which should shift you into rest and digest mode, helping you absorb your nutrients more efficiently.
  2. Get organized in the kitchen. Have a family member help you clear the clutter so you can think like a chef. Get rid of anything that does not serve you when you are cooking. You do NOT need that ceramic chicken on your counter! Get rid of it. A professional chef has a cooking area that is efficient and free of clutter. Do an edit of your drawers and cupboards and donate anything you will not use to cook simple meals.
  3. Create a workspace that has ease. Put a chef’s mat under your feet where you stand to help you conserve energy in your feet and back. Choose a chef’s knife that feels comfortable in your hand and keep it sharp. Keep prep bowls and utensils nearby so you can save your energy by not moving around so much when you cook.
  4. Get help. Enlist family and friends to help you prepare and serve food. Plan a week of basics like roasted chicken breasts, bone broth, chopped veggies and a nourishing dip that is free of additives and full of anti-inflammatory ingredients like ginger and olive oil.
  5. Learn what gives you energy, and what takes it away. Generally, food that is brightly coloured, that comes from the earth and that is raw or lightly cooked contains the most nutrients. You don’t have to have a nutrition degree to know what food is good for you. Our ancestors didn’t. Eat food that comes from the earth, as often as you can.
  6. Replace coffee and tea with water. You may not be able to give up the caffeine, but staying hydrated is a significant way to increase energy. So get a water bottle, keep it with you all day, and then for every cup of caffeine you consume, drink an extra glass of water on top of your two liters per day.
  7. Pay attention to your digestion. How do you feel after you eat? If you are bloated, tired, gassy, or have trouble with bowel movements, it may be time to seek help from a qualified professional to help you rebuild your microbiome and ensure you have strong, healthy bacteria in your gut.  When you eat, chew your food, SLOW DOWN, be grateful for your food and appreciate tastes and smells. This will shift you into rest and digest mode, allowing for more optimal absorption of those much needed nutrients. Plus a little gratitude never hurt anyone.

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.

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