Battling Burnout and Building Resistance to It

By: Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., DACBN, CFMP®

I enjoy writing about what I commonly treat in my Tampa Functional medicine practice, and one of the most common conditions I treat is burnout.

Few people would consider burnout to be a medical condition, but it is, by far, the root cause of millions of annual doctor visits. Think about it. When your energy stores are totally depleted; you’re feeling overwhelmed by life’s burdens and demands; and you don’t have the time, money, and other resources to give yourself a break; your body becomes more susceptible to all forms of illness.

My grandmother provides the perfect case study in how burnout can impact health and how it can be treated successfully. Her second child, my uncle, was born prematurely and received excess oxygen, which resulted in blindness. My grandmother did a great job caring for him and ensuring that he would have a normal life. At the same time, she was caring for her first child, maintaining the household, and helping my grandfather run their family business.

(Photo ©2018 Daniel Garcia – sourced from Unsplash)

After several years, she started to feel overwhelmed and began experiencing numerous health issues related to her hormones. She eventually developed ovarian cancer. Thankfully, it was detected and treated early and successfully.

Following surgery, she continued to feel overwhelmed, additionally burdened with worries over her health. While she survived the cancer, she still had to care for her children, maintain the household, and assist in the business. She met with her primary care doctor who noticed she was visibly anxious. Back then, prescribing an anti-anxiety medication like Xanax or Valium wasn’t as common as it is now. Instead, the doctor suggested she board a train and go somewhere nice for a few weeks.

Now this may sound like strange advice, it may even strike you as dismissive, but it was — for that day and age — the ideal prescription for treating the root cause of my grandmother’s medical condition. Based on her doctor’s orders, she carved out the time and headed from New York to California to visit some old friends for a few weeks. She returned refreshed, healthy, and relaxed, and from that point on, she experienced no major health issues. She died at the age of 92 and wasn’t taking a single prescription medication.

I tell this story to remind people that life isn’t just about work and responsibilities — and that healthcare isn’t merely about treating illness. With the right approach, we can alleviate and manage stress, replenish our energy reserves, and make our minds and bodies more resilient. I realize not all of us have the time and resources to hop on a train, travel cross-country, and visit friends for weeks at a time. But we all have the power to make diet and lifestyle decisions, and we also have access to numerous treatment options and healthcare providers to make us physically and mentally more resilient to life’s many stressors.

Are You Susceptible to Experiencing Burnout?

Anyone can experience burnout. It generally begins in the thirties and continues into the forties and even fifties. By the time you’re thirty, you’ve probably been burning the candle at both ends from your mid- to late-teens preparing for life and career. Then you shift into career mode and maybe start a family or a business. Or you find yourself on a career track with nebulously defined objectives in order to continue climbing the corporate ladder. The responsibilities and pressures begin to build, and the things you used to do to maintain your physical and mental health are the first to be sacrificed.

To many people, burnout is an occupational hazard, usually resulting from being overworked and underappreciated. While this is certainly the case, burnout can stem from a variety of other factors — physical or emotional trauma (recent or long past) or a combination of small, daily, unrelenting stressors. For example, suppose you’re working a job you like but the hours don’t leave you any time for yourself, so you stay up late at night to relax and unwind. Now, you’re getting only four to six hours of sleep nightly — less than your body requires for restoration and repair. Over time, this lifestyle takes a toll on your body, and you begin to feel the effects in the form of burnout.

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

Many of the patients I see in my practice consider burnout to be strictly emotional or psychological — mental exhaustion. While that’s certainly part of it, burnout can also manifest in physical symptoms. Here’s a list of common symptoms covering both the mental and physical:

  • Anxiety
  • Brain fog
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Exhaustion (mental and physical)
  • Irritability
  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor sleep (inability to fall asleep and/or restless sleep)
  • Difficulty relaxing or unwinding
  • Headaches
  • Neck and shoulder stiffness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Poor digestion

Your Choice: Treat the Burnout Now or the Illnesses Resulting from It Later

Whether they realize it or not, most doctors are treating burnout every day. At the least, they’re treating illnesses resulting from untreated burnout — everything from chronic pain to cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The key to addressing burnout and avoiding serious medical conditions that arise from it is early intervention. Imagine your doctor handing you a prescription for a 30-day vacation to your favorite beach or mountain retreat! If you were suffering from any of the symptoms of burnout listed in the previous section, those systems would probably disappear two weeks into your vacation. As soon as your stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, calmed down, you’d start to feel relief — to feel more like yourself. You may even notice the disappearance of what you were led to believe were chronic medical conditions.

Pro Tip: To learn more about the impact of stress hormones on health, check out my previous post, “HPA Axis Dysfunction is a Legitimate — and Accurate Medical Diagnosis.”

How Dr. Matt Lewis Diagnoses and Treats Burnout in Tampa

My approach to diagnosing and treating burnout begins with the same approach I take to diagnosing and treating other medical conditions — I start by getting to know my patient.

First, I want to understand what they’re carrying in their proverbial bucket. What has their life been like over the years? I’m not a psychologist or therapist, but I need to understand the emotional bearing and burden of my patients, because these can play a tremendous role in their health and wellbeing.

In this early phase, I’m trying to gauge my patient’s perceived stress level on a scale of one to 10 with 10 being most stressed. I may also order lab tests to check for hidden infections, nutrient deficiencies, hormone imbalances, digestion problems, and toxins. Factors that can contribute to burnout include post-traumatic stress, shift work, long hours, waking with children, chronic infections, dietary patterns, vitamin/mineral deficiencies, mold exposure, workout habits (too much or not enough), hormone imbalances, and digestive problems. Imagine all these factors filling a bucket over time until it begins to overflow.

The objective of treatment is to stop pouring more into the bucket, start removing what’s already in the bucket, and enabling the bucket to drain itself in the future.

That last part is what I call building resilience. Resilience is what enabled my grandmother to continue to care for herself, family, and the family business. We don’t lose all our problems and then lose the burnout. We find ways to build resilience, such as making diet and lifestyle adjustments, developing healthy workout routines, addressing nutritional deficiencies, restoring healthy digestion, detoxing, rebooting our nervous system, and restoring healthy cortisol patterns.

While this may sound complicated, it’s actually quite simple and can be implemented in a matter of a few weeks to a few months.

What You Can Expect

As soon as I understand your health concerns, life history, and medical history, I make recommendations for testing and treatment options, and I create a personalized plan to restore your body’s health and build resilience within the context of your life.

I often start by running lab tests to check hormone levels, including cortisol. I look for vitamin and mineral levels, because these are needed to produce serotonin, dopamine, and gaba — neurotransmitters that support balancing our brain, sleep, and stress levels. I may also order urine or stool tests to check for digestive problems and for environmental toxins that can contribute to anxiety, including mold toxins and heavy metals. (To find out more about my approach to restoring health and fitness, check out “Understanding My Personal Approach to Doctoring.”)

If you’re feeling burned out, I strongly encourage you to do something about it as soon as possible. And if you’re not feeling burned out, take steps now to avoid getting to that place. Your life depends on it. If you’re in the Tampa area and would like to consult with me, click to schedule an appointment.

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