The holidays. Two words that bring up warm feelings of special times with family and friends, festive decorations, and delicious food. But for many, these two words are packed with feelings of anxiety and exhaustion.
With holiday shopping, cooking, and managing finances, it’s easy to become overwhelmed during this time of year. That’s especially true in light of COVID-19 and the crazy year we’ve had. But to help you stay balanced and healthy amid all of the holiday pressures, both familiar and new, here are some tips from Dr. James LaValle on how to manage stress and avoid holiday burnout.
What is burnout?
Burnout for me is when excessive stress has drained your resiliency and vitality.
All of us have different amounts of stress that we can take on in our life. That process is known as allostasis. When we experience too much stress, we increase what’s known as our allostatic load. Allostatic load happens when stress overloads to your brain to the point that it changes your normal, healthy response to stress. As a result, we find ourselves reaching for unhealthy foods, drinking too much, shortchanging the amount of sleep we get, and even overtraining. This can lead to changes in your metabolic health, your resiliency, and your general durability in your daily life.
What are the first signs of burnout?
I have dealt with people experiencing burn out during my 38 years in practice, so I know the signs very well. While the symptoms can vary from person to person, one of the most common signs is a mid-afternoon energy crash. This is an early sign that the diurnal pattern of cortisol production is off. Another fairly early sign to watch for is an elevated resting heart rate. A lot of people have smart watches these days, so I really recommend using them to check your resting heart rate. A resting heart rate above 62 may mean that you are stressed out. The same is true for slightly elevated blood pressure. You may or may not feel stressed out with these slight changes. If you do, you may feel over-committed, anxious, or more irritable.
Food cravings and sleep problems are almost always of a part of the chronic stress response. With elevated cortisol and excessive fight or flight response, serotonin and eventually dopamine levels will become depleted. This triggers cravings for comfort foods, especially in the late afternoon and early evening. Your brain creates these cravings to try to build up serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. These neurotransmitters promote feelings of calm and supply reward signals in the brain. As a result, you have a “love affair” with that bag of potato chips or chocolate covered pretzels. When cortisol is too high in the evening, it also causes something called hyperarousal, which means you can’t sleep. Hyperarousal is the number one cause of insomnia.
What else should we look out for?
Other physical signs can include elevated blood sugar, which can occur as a result of cortisol shutting down insulin receptors. When this happens, you begin to store more visceral fat. You may start to see body composition changes, with weight accumulating in your midsection. In addition, elevated blood sugar and insulin resistance can contribute to cholesterol levels going up.
When cortisol goes up, your body also releases more adrenaline. This causes your blood vessels to constrict and become less pliable. The net result of this is increased blood pressure. The uptick in adrenaline further amplifies insulin resistance, which in turn further constricts blood vessels. Over time, elevated stress hormones can add up to significant risk for heart disease.
Stress can also throw off your microbiome, causing gas and bloating and changes in bowel habits and can even create gut-immune reactivity to foods. Plus, stress takes a toll on your libido by directly interfering with the production of sex hormones.
Are there any symptoms that we might not expect to see as a sign of burnout?
In fact, there are. You may feel foggy headed or what I call “pushing a thought through Jell-O.” This occurs because stress hormones can spark neuroinflammation. This leads to changes in your ability to recall and remember, and it can have a lasting impact on your memory. You can also lose your ability to fight off colds and flu. This happens because stress hormones suppress your T helper cell 1 (Th1) immunity. Th1 is the part of your immune system that is most responsible for fighting colds and flu, as well as cancer cells.
What can you do?
If you’re experiencing stress, regardless of the source, there are a number of things you can do to recapture your zen, from simple breathing techniques to supplements.
It is important to find techniques that will help you off-load the stress. I like a simple breathing technique called “box breathing.” Simply inhale for a count of four and hold your breath for four counts. Then exhale slowly to the count of four and wait for four counts before inhaling again. Visualize the stress of the day leaving you with each exhale and when finished think of something to be grateful for. Do this three or four times throughout the day.
Meditation and relaxing forms of exercise like yoga may also help, but they aren’t always enough to adequately control the production of stress hormones. This is why I am a big fan of adaptogenic herbs like rhodiola and holy basil. I have seen them work wonders. Another option is a proprietary blend of two plant extracts—magnolia and phellodendron—that is remarkably effective in helping reduce stress-related food cravings.
More Stress Less Tips
- Better sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene techniques, like getting off the phone and digital information highway at least an hour before bed. Try to get seven to nine hours of restful sleep each night. Taking adaptogenic herbs during the day and melatonin at night can be a big help when stress is interfering with sleep.
- Healthy diet. Eat a diet centered around quality proteins, lots of vegetables, some fruit, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats like avocado and olive oil. Higher protein intake at breakfast and lunch helps with alertness and focus during the day. Take a combination of magnolia and phellodendron (listed on supplement labels as Relora) to help curb carb and sugar carvings.
- Control caffeine. When stress makes you tired, you may be tempted to reach for the caffeine. But be careful. Although a little caffeine is okay, routinely consuming too much will eventually leave you even more exhausted. Don’t take in any caffeine after noon or 1 pm, if sleep is a problem.
- Exercise is important but vary the intensity. Make sure you alternate low intensity exercise like walking, yoga or Tai Chi, with higher-intensity workouts like cycling, swimming, or lifting weights. Just don’t become an intense exercise junky. While training hard may help you feel less stressed initially, when overdone, it can actually increase your stress hormones and the problems that go with it.
- Gut health. Use deep breathing and/or adaptogens to reduce stress hormones. Take a good probiotic to support better digestive function. Probiotics also help build better immunity, but you need to use a product that has proven efficacy. Look for a probiotic that contains biocompatible human strains like Lactobacillus gasseri KS-13, Bifidobacterium bifidum G9-1, and Bifidobacterium longum MM-2 that can survive the high acidity in the stomach and are viable when they arrive in the intestine. It’s also smart to choose a probiotic that guarantees that it contains the labeled amount of live units throughout the entire shelf life of the product.
If at any time stress and burnout are causing you to worry about your health, seek the advice of your designated health care provider.
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.