Burnout is something most can relate to on some level. Perhaps you’ve been pushed to your limits or underworked with monotonous tasks. Either way, the sense of negativity, dread, and fatigue has loomed around many of our work lives at some point.
On this side of the planet, the cultural norm tends to be going to the doctor or the pharmacy for any little ailment. They are useful to some extent, but inarguably overused. Here in the Western world, we believe that we’re ahead of the times with our modern medicines. The paradox is, however, that we need a lot of modern medicine because of modern medicine. Over prescribing strong drugs, especially for younger children, can have adverse effects later in life.¹
Additionally, we view medicine as one formulaic model that works for the majority. In reality, a personalized approach would prove much more
We are human and always will be, despite the constant advancements in technology and pharmacology. Accepting this simple (and amazing!) fact opens our eyes to a whole new world of natural remedies we should consider trying before turning to a pill.
Due to similar symptoms, burnout is often diagnosed as depression.³ This raises many concerns in terms of medication because, physiologically, the two could not be more different.⁴ Medications for depression work by affecting certain neurotransmitter levels. Some of this imbalance actually has the potential to worsen burnout.⁵ As with antidepressants, it is a case by case basis and should be handled more carefully than it currently is.
What exactly is a more natural and reliable option, then? The Chinese and other Asian cultures have known for ages: adaptogenic herbs.⁶
In traditional Chinese medicine, they center health around the idea of balance-- think yin and yang. People without this harmonious mindset consider it holistic nonsense, but the truth is that the idea is sound, and science backs it up.
In the culture, a tonic is something that balances your body's physiological processes, or your qì.⁷ Adaptogens are tonics, but particulars of the definition have changed overtime. The most recent explains them as natural bioregulators. They enhance our body’s ability to respond to our environment and avoid potential harm.⁸ In simpler terms, they suppress our response to stress without harming our bodies in any way. Also referred to as ginseng-like herbs, these powerful plants have a wide array of medicinal properties. For example, anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, and, in relation to burnout, anti-fatigue, anti-anxiety, and anti-depression.⁹ Before we dive into these benefits, let's first explore how they work.
The HPA Axis
When you undergo a stressful experience, the wondrous mechanisms in your nervous system work overtime to keep you safe. They do this by maintaining homeostasis, which is another way to say the body's equilibrium.
A key factor in your body’s response to stress is a region called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis. Basically, it’s a fancy word for the structures that interact to aid in stress regulation. It’s the main target for adaptogens.¹⁰ A stressor comes along, and the adaptogen is right there with the HPA axis to help it out.
It’s important to note that not all adaptogenic herbs do exactly the same thing. However, they all share the same basic characteristics that reduce bodily response to stress. They are split into three categories:¹¹
Primary adaptogens regulate energy usage in the neuroendocrine system. This allows for optimal functioning in cells and gives us a continuous flow of energy. It would be ideal in a person suffering from burnout, as energy is likely something he or she is lacking.
Secondary adaptogens do not directly affect the HPA axis, but rather other parts of the nervous system. They also aid the immune system and the endocrine system (where adrenal glands are found). While primaries are better for directly treating burnout and reducing stress, these secondary adaptogens create another line of defense.
Adaptogen companions make up the final category.Technically, they don’t meet all of the traditional criteria, hence the name "companions." They act to improve the effects of the other two, as well as positively affect the HPA axis by reducing stress.
The other important thing that should be explained are the adrenal glands. Adrenal glands are the “A” in “HPA axis,” and they assist with many bodily functions, including--you guessed it-- response to stress. They secrete hormones that are meant to balance things out, or maintain homeostasis. When greater amounts of stress require too much from the adrenal glands, they get burnout in a sense and become fatigued.
That’s where adaptogens come in; they come to the aid of the adrenal glands and bring hormone secretion back to normal. They also act as the upkeep for adrenal functioning in the absence of stress.¹²
Why does this matter?
Now we can better understand why exactly adaptogens are the most viable option for alleviating burnout. Clinical trials have shown us the aforementioned anti-fatigue effect. Even in full burnout mode--with stress and exhaustion banging down the door--adaptogens improved mental abilities. In addition, they enhanced subjects’ attention.¹³
The defense that adaptogens provide against illness is also noteworthy. Under abnormal amounts of stress, the body struggles to maintain homeostasis. Neurotransmitter ratios are all out of whack. This is why burnout can lead to loss of sleep and bad eating habits (such as high sugar and simple carbs).¹⁴ In turn, the body becomes more susceptible to illness due to its lack of nutrients and rest. This is where the secondary adaptogens come in. They assist in the immune system and endocrine system more directly, thus preventing illness.¹⁵
Overall, burnout is characterized by its unshakeable fatigue and constant stress. Adaptogens are characterized by their medicinal abilities to alleviate stress. Unlike other stimulants (read: coffee), they also improve your endurance in the long run. Therefore, try not to resort to a potentially harmful synthetic chemical in the form of a pill. Try something more natural at first that has succeeded for centuries.¹⁶
Now that you know the secret, what do you do? Although these herbs may originate somewhere far away does not mean you can’t get your hands on them locally and naturally! You can always do your own searches, but I have also gathered information on a few adaptogenic examples and where to find them:
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, has shown significant reduction of anxiety and stress.¹⁷ It can be found as a supplement or as an organic powder for smoothies and other recipes.
Maca is Peruvian ginseng and can also be found as a supplement or a powder. In addition to having anti-fatigue and anti-depression effects, it has shown to improve fertility. Studies also show promising antiviral properties.¹⁸
Turmeric is used as an Indian spice and is in the same family as ginger. In addition to antidepressant qualities, it’s anti-inflammatory and has shown to reduce symptoms of PMS!¹⁹ Find turmeric with the spices at your local supermarket, or it comes as a supplement.
As all the information iterates, adaptogenics are a viable option for alleviating burnout. With their help, you will balance your body and your mind on a molecular level, and I guarantee you will feel that inner harmony on the outside.
Berman, S. M., Kuczenski, R. T., McCracken, J., & London, E. D. (2009, February). Potential adverse effects of amphetamine treatment on brain and behavior: A review. Retrieved September 04, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2670101/
Gupta, P. D. (2015). Pharmacogenetics, pharmacogenomics and ayurgenomics for personalized medicine: A paradigm shift. Retrieved September 04, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4442460/
Kakiashvili, T., Leszek, J., & Rutkowski, K. (2013). THE MEDICAL PERSPECTIVE ON BURNOUT.
Liao, L., He, Y., Li, L., Meng, H., Dong, Y., Yi, F., & Xiao, P. (2018, November 16). A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: Comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide. Retrieved September 02, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6240259/