Lately, I can’t read the news without coming across an article about burnout. It seems that everyone from kindergartners and teenagers to essential workers, corporate employees, and seniors — seriously, everyone — is experiencing some form of burnout. But what exactly does that mean? Is wearing the same sweatpants for five days in a row a symptom of burnout? What about staying up until 3 AM binge-watching Squid Game because I’m too tired to go to bed, or eating chips and salsa for dinner because deciding what to make (or even order!) feels too overwhelming?
Unfortunately, I think I know the answer. I’m a poster girl for the concept of burnout. Maybe the real question is, what is the source of this collective burnout? Speaking only for myself, I tend to think it’s a mental problem — that if I could just summon the willpower to meditate for half an hour every day, or drink more water, or finish that 30-day yoga challenge I abandoned after three days, I’d magically be able to function at maximum capacity. But Robin Berzin, MD, author of the new book State Change and the founder of Parsley Health (the nation’s largest holistic medical practice), begs to differ.
It’s not all in your head.
“The one thing everyone, especially women, should know is that [burnout] is not all in your head,” she tells FIRST. “Too often, women’s mental health issues are dismissed by doctors with a prescription, or a referral to a therapist — but really anxiety, depression, burnout, and fatigue can be symptoms of far more serious things happening in the body that need to be addressed.”
Dr. Berzin recommends that women who are experiencing burnout (and/or anxiety, depression, insomnia — basically, any form of the funk we’re all feeling these days) ask their health practitioner to run a battery of tests to see whether there are any underlying physical conditions that could be masquerading as mental health issues.
“How’s your blood sugar? Is your thyroid working as it should? Do you have any vitamin or iron deficiencies? And how’s your inflammation? Testing establishes your baseline of health and also empowers you to track shifts in your body, mind, and mood,” she explains. “When you understand it’s not all in your head, you can truly advocate for yourself and take action to improve how you feel.” (Scroll to the end for a list of tests she recommends.)
This isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t behavioral changes you can make that will help you feel better and improve your ability to function on a day-to-day basis. (In my case, putting on fresh clothes and eating a real meal might be a start.)
“The daily choices you make will shape your everyday mental health,” says Dr. Berzin. “What’s your routine? Take a closer look at what you’re eating, how you’re moving your body, the quality of your sleep, and how much time you’re spending on a screen. All of these combine to affect our emotional baseline and can have drastic impacts on our feelings of anxiety, depression and burnout.”
Below, Dr. Berzin shares five core actions that can make a big impact on how you feel — and help you beat burnout once and for all.
Move your body to train your brain.
“It doesn’t just matter that we move — it matters how we move, too. Movement is how our bodies process emotion, and when we cross-train, we can train both body and mind. That is, if you’re doing hour-long HIIT exercises, your brain might think that you are running from a lion, worsening your state of constant fight or flight. For peak mental health, mix it up with a balance of strength building, cardio, and controlled, nervous-system relaxing practices like yoga or qigong.”
Food is medicine for your mood.
“What we eat matters. It determines how well our bodies manage stress and build healthy brain connections. For example, choosing omega-3s over omega-6s is critical to reducing neuroinflammation and increasing mood. In excess, omega-6s — found in high amounts in vegetable oils, for example — can harm brain cells, increase neuroinflammation, and reduce your body’s ability to use serotonin. A good way to get omega-3s in your diet is to shift to a plant-based paleo diet rich with leafy greens, EVOO, salmon, eggs, and fermented foods to fortify your microbiome.”
Sleep is when your brain takes out the trash.
“It’s a myth that some people can run on five or six hours of sleep. It is critical for your mental health to get eight to nine hours of sleep each night. Sleep isn’t just about rest — it’s also when our brains take out the trash. Throughout the day, neurotoxins and other brain debris accumulates; it’s only when the body is in deep sleep that the brain can tidy up. If this crucial cleaning process is skipped, neurotoxins can build up and make you more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s, mental/emotional instability, and poor decision making. Indeed, just one night of poor sleep can ratchet up your anxiety by 30 percent, according to researchers at UC Berkeley.”
Re-evaluate your relationship with tech.
“The average American spends 11 hours a day staring at a screen — and it’s bad for our brains. Screens increase feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and lower self-esteem. Not to mention how much it affects sleep patterns. Blue light isn’t the only culprit here; screens trigger our fight-or-flight response, driving up cortisol levels and leaving us in a state of hyperarousal without our natural bedtime cues. I suggest shutting down all screens by 9 PM and limiting social media time to one hour a day.”
Limit your alcohol intake.
“Many of us aren’t aware how much alcohol is affecting our sleep and driving up anxiety and depression levels. There is, of course, an important line between alcohol use, abuse, and addiction. Addiction is a disease, and for anyone suffering from alcoholism, I recommend no alcohol at all. For those misusing or abusing alcohol, I recommend cutting back alcohol use to three times or less a week to increase energy levels and improve sleep.”
Want more tips on beating burnout and achieving the “state change” Dr. Berzin talks about in her book of the same name? Buy it on Amazon, or order it from your favorite local bookstore. (My daughter took my copy with her to college, and Dr. Berzin’s team kindly sent me a replacement copy — I can’t recommend it highly enough!)
5 Tests To Ask Your Health Practitioner To Run
Want to get to the bottom of your burnout? Start by asking your doctor, functional medicine practitioner, or other healthcare professional to run the following diagnostic tests recommended by Dr. Berzin:
- Three blood sugar tests: HgBA1C, fasting glucose, and fasting insulin
- Three inflammation tests: hsCRP, ESR, and ANA
- Three thyroid tests: TSH, free T4, and free T3
- Ferritin test for iron deficiency
- Three tests for nutritional deficiencies: Vitamin D3, Vitamin B12, and RBC-folate
Burnout is real, but the good news is, there are ways to beat it and feel better. Me? I’m going to start by taking a walk in the sunshine instead of staring at my screen — right after I solve today’s Wordle.
This article originally appeared on our sister site, For for Women