The first thing registered dietitian and nutritionist Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN, wants you to know about burnout is that a vacation won’t cure it. The “From Burnout to Balance” author may now be a pro at the balance part, but in a conversation with TODAY she was candid about what it took to get there and the constant management needed to stay in a healthy place mentally, emotionally and physically.
“You know when you’re in college and you’re up all night studying for an exam? And you plow through. But after the fact, you get sick,” she said. “I had gone through years of that, and like so many women, we don’t even know we’re in burnout because we’re in survival mode. You’re trying to get through your day or even just the next hour.”
Is it burnout — or just stress?
While chronic, unrelenting stress can lead to burnout, Bannan said the symptoms are different, because burnout is stress that’s taken such a toll that you no longer feel like yourself.
“While stress — even intense bouts of it — might motivate you to work harder and parent ‘better,’ burnout makes you feel like you can’t function and no longer want to.” She said stress can, and will, take a toll on your physical and emotional health.
The World Health Organization formally recognized occupational burnout as a “syndrome” in May 2019. The telltale signs include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from or a cynical or negative attitude towards work, and a drop in professional performance. “While the WHO definition of burnout is solely focused on occupational burnout,” Bannan added, “as a practitioner I think it’s important we realize the holistic nature and enmeshed causes of burnout, particularly for women.”
For Bannan, years of personal and professional challenges culminated in her first bout with burnout. Starting a blended family with her husband, going through IVF, managing financial worries as an entrepreneur, and other factors all contributed. She said it wasn’t until after her daughter was born that everything caught up with her. “After the family was in a place where everybody was thriving and my work was doing well, then it was like wow, I’m completely depleted. I can’t even function. I realized, these last few years have taken quite a toll and I needed to get back to basics myself and recharge my own batteries. And in doing so, I learned about burnout. I started to talk to other women and every woman I talked to was in burnout or had an experience with it.”
Although burnout can become like a chronic disease, Bannan looks for ways to control it. “Stress is less likely to turn into burnout when adequate support is available,” she said. “When you’re reaching out for help, that might be nutritional support to fuel your body so you’re not as prone to getting sick. Or it could be talking to a therapist in dealing with emotional stressors which, similarly, might not manifest into full-on burnout if you can curb them in advance.”
And it’s important to do so because burnout can take a significant toll on your health, increasing your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, respiratory issues, chronic inflammation and possible autoimmune conditions, alcohol or substance abuse, and even hurt your relationships.
Women get it worse than men — and the generation that’s most affected may surprise you
A 2021 study on women in the workplace found that the gap between women and men who report burnout in the last year has nearly doubled. At the beginning of the pandemic, one in four women considered downshifting their careers or leaving the workplace. By 2021, that number had become one in three. In th meantime, a staggering 42% of women reported that they were often or almost always burned out in 2021, compared to 32% the previous year. “The stress of the pandemic has taken such a toll,” Bannan said. “The number of women who left the workplace because of this idea of ‘parenting like you don’t have work and working like you don’t have kids’ was just unbearable.”
Bannan said she was surprised to learn which generation is hit hardest. “I assumed it was not millennials because maybe they weren’t far enough in their careers or married yet with kids, and yet I was surprised in my research to find out they are deemed the ‘burnout generation.’ So the question is — why? There are a lot of variables, one being social media, where you’re connected but feeling more alone than ever in the quality of your relationships. Also, in the workplace there’s no ability to unplug. So many jobs and companies expect you to check your email 24/7, because information is always available and therefore you’re supposed to be always available. Millennial females weren’t feeling like they had power in their jobs, like they were getting paid appropriately, or getting the respect that they needed to move up. They felt that they were disposable.”
Of course, the pandemic took its toll on everyone, including the so-called ‘sandwich generation’ raising kids while also caring for their own parents. “Different demographics and life experiences can make you more prone to burnout. At every stage of the game there are new challenges and they’re all wearing.”
Whatever their age, women experience burnout more often than men, and it presents differently, Bannan explained. She said women are “more likely to feel anxious and depressed, have sleeping and concentration problems, a hard time making decisions, planning for the future, and maintaining healthy eating habits. There’s also the self-care side of things. Even when they’re struggling, women are more likely to put their own needs third or fourth. So self-care is a huge benefit in and of itself, which ties back into healthy eating. Making a simple healthy meal brings not only the benefits of that meal but also the benefits of prioritizing that for yourself.”
A healthy lifestyle is about more than just food
Bannan emphasizes balance rather than a complete diet overhaul. “It’s not about perfectionism at all. There are times when not only do you want a doughnut or cookies, it’s actually good for you to have what you want, because you’re creating balance and having enjoyment for the sake of enjoyment. Sharing a glass of wine with a friend, that has lifestyle health benefits as well. I do call out specific nutrients in food that research has shown to help with certain ailments, but so much is also lifestyle factors. There’s no green smoothie that is going to cure burnout. No one recipe or even a meal plan that can do that… it’s absolutely a holistic dynamic, which is why those support resources are so important. Self-identifying and simplifying your life is so key.”
The gut-brain connection
In case you needed more convincing that what you eat and how you feel are connected, Bannan points out that our diet can affect our brain chemistry — both for better, and for worse. Foods that boost serotonin and other feel-good hormones can help, while stress is a major culprit for gut issues. Bannan is fascinated by the growing field of research on the gut-brain link. “They’re so interconnected that there’s actually a new field called nutrition psychiatry on keeping that gut microbiome healthy through eating certain foods. I focus on plant-based foods because research has shown the more plant-based foods, the better for our gut microbiome, which will affect our brain chemistry and our mood, our focus, all those areas. But also, stress and burnout takes a toll on our gut. I know I have gut issues when I’m stressed. I think that’s very common with a lot of women.”
What should we eat to fight burnout?
“On the culinary side of things,” Bannan said, “what does this look like on the plate and how can we find more enjoyment in our lives through delicious food that fuels us?”
Bannan breaks down her top choices to support the four core areas of burnout: mood, immunity, focus and sleep.
Feel-good foods can:
- Counteract the negative effects of stress hormones
- Keep your blood sugar levels more stable (so being “hangry” can’t sabotage your day)
- Help your brain make “happy” hormones like serotonin and dopamine
- Feed your microbiome
Three of her top mood-boosting ingredients and the nutrients they contain for a healthy gut-brain axis are:
- Avocados: folate for neurotransmitters, magnesium to reduce anxiety, healthy fats for hormones and brain health
- Chickpeas: protein and fiber to stabilize blood sugar levels, folate for neurotransmitters, iron for energy, magnesium to reduce anxiety
- Eggs: choline for energy and a steady mood, B vitamins for managing stress and energy, antioxidant selenium to support a healthy mood
If your body is spending too much energy to deal with stress or burnout, Bannan warned, that keeps it from doing its routine immune tasks, which can look like:
- A reduced ability to defend against germs and other invaders
- Elevated blood pressure and increased heart rates
- Digestive upset, which interferes with the microbiome’s immune functions
- Higher inflammation levels
- More unhealthy habits (drinking, smoking, skipping sleep) that further erode the immune system’s efficiency
- Immune cells that are so exhausted they forget what they’re supposed to do and engage in “friendly fire” against your body
Three of her top foods for immune support include:
- Grapes: polyphenols for immune support, vitamin K for immune and inflammatory responses
- Tomatoes: lycopene for antioxidant support, vitamin C to stimulate antibody production, vitamin A for immune function, fiber for immune support
- Shellfish: zinc for immune support and healing, vitamin B12 for red blood cell production, protein for healing and recovery
A common side effect of burnout is mental fatigue or “brain fog.” A 2014 research review concluded that burnout impacts cognitive function, causing symptoms including:
- A lack of creativity
- Struggles with solving problems
- Memory issues
- Attention lapses
Three of Bannan’s top foods for focus are:
- Blueberries: vitamin C to protect against dementia, flavonoids to improve memory and delay cognitive decline
- Olives and olive oil: healthy fats for brain function and memory, vitamin E to protect brain cells
- Walnuts: polyphenols to support memory, protein for a healthy brain and nervous system, and fiber for blood sugar stability
We need sleep, plain and simple. Our brains and our bodies suffer when we don’t get enough of it, and the pandemic hasn’t made it easier to get those seven to nine hours.
Three foods Bannan chose to help with sleep include:
- Tart cherries and juice: melatonin and potassium for sleep quality
- Kiwi: vitamin C for serotonin production, potassium for sleep quality
- Peanut butter: tryptophan for making serotonin and melatonin, vitamin B6 and magnesium for sleep quality
Bannan doesn’t claim to be a miracle worker — even in her own life. “I don’t want to pretend like I have it all figured out,” she said, laughing. “I can give you a glass half-full version of my life or tell you about the things that add stress. So I use these tools all the time. Learning to say no and then not feel bad about it is such a huge part of it for me. I heard someone who wrote a book about burnout say something that stuck with me, because I feel good when I check things off my lists. They said you always have 20% of your list you’ll never get through, so just accept that and enjoy your life. That was a huge shift for me. Because those are things that cause angst, but nobody ever has everything checked off and if you do, you’re probably bored.”