A bit of stress at this time of year - with the holidays looming – feels quite normal in our busy lives. But what if you are feeling beyond "a little stressed"? What if you are feeling so exhausted and overwhelmed that you are no longer coping with the daily demands of life, nevermind the added pressure of the festive season?

You may have reached burnout stage.

While "burnout" isn't a technical or medical term, many of us instinctively know what it means.

When we have been under prolonged stress, it becomes harder for our bodies to maintain balance.

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To understand burnout, it is important to understand that stress is a progression. It is also a complex issue which affects every part of our body, especially our nervous system and adrenal glands.

The stress journey usually looks something like this:

• Coping

With normal life stresses or a stressful situation.

• Not coping

With the above, starting to experience symptoms of stress.

• Overwhelmed

Nervous system is affected and showing signs of being overwhelmed from chronic stress such as feeling anxious, reactive, having difficulties relaxing and enjoy a restorative sleep. Experiencing low moods, feelings of despair.

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Physical symptoms may be spontaneous sweating, low immunity and digestive function.

• Exhaustion or burnout

Overwhelmed nervous system has now exhausted your adrenal glands

* Depression/Anxiety (chronic, relentless stress combined with above bodily malfunctions has led to a serious mental health issue)

When we are under immediate stress, our body adapts to cope and get back to balance as best it can.

However, under prolonged stress, it becomes harder for our bodies to maintain balance.

In this prolonged state of stress, organs become less responsive to the messages they receive. Our stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, become overworked.
Over time, cortisol levels can become dysregulated and eventually depleted. When cortisol levels are no longer able to respond, you have reached the burnout stage.

Natural Support for Burnout

As with most serious health issues, prevention is much easier than a cure. If you recognise that you are on the stress journey, headed towards burnout, now is the time to do something about it. Rebuilding your body's resilience is harder the further down the process you are.

Plant medicine is an important part of your journey back to health. Certain plants contain compounds which are excellent at nourishing and supporting your adrenals and nervous system.

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is probably the most well-known plant medicine for helping with burnout, as it acts directly on the adrenal glands.

A 2009 research review by Head and Kelly found that licorice can help to spare the body's supply of cortisol in those with low cortisol levels – meaning that they have stressed their adrenals to the burnout stage.

However, Licorice didn't affect levels in those with normal cortisol levels, meaning that it won't cause excess cortisol in those who haven't reached burnout.

Licorice is the most well-known plant medicine for helping with burnout, as it acts directly on the adrenal glands. Photo / Getty Images
Licorice is the most well-known plant medicine for helping with burnout, as it acts directly on the adrenal glands. Photo / Getty Images

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) has relaxing and rejuvenating properties and can help to ease anxiety, restlessness and irritability. It also helps to promote sleep without causing daytime drowsiness or dependence.

St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) helps to strengthen the nervous system, promoting resilience and supporting energy levels without being excessively stimulating.

It has been clinically shown to lift moods, with fewer side effects than synthetic antidepressants.

While these are just a few of the plant medicines which can help with burnout, it is important to get support from a medical herbalist or other healthcare professional who can also help you to integrate changes to your diet, add in rest and relaxation techniques, and implement healthy boundaries as part of your road to recovery.

Recovering from burnout is possible but will take a holistic approach and support. To contact a qualified medical herbalist go to www.nzamh.org.nz.