While amazingly resilient to the effects of short-term stress, the human body simply can’t endure the constant assault produced by chronic stress for long periods of time. Long-term, unresolvable stress, whether it be job-related or otherwise, can eventually produce feelings of exhaustion, listlessness, inability to cope and even depression -- a condition dubbed "burnout" in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Technically, there is no clinical definition or diagnostic criteria for "burnout." Increasingly, however, health care professionals are recognizing burnout to be a serious mental health concern, impacted by both biological and lifestyle factors, which can have dire consequences if left unchecked.
To date, the most common approach to treating severe burnout is the prescription of antidepressant medications. While effective at managing burnout symptoms, these medications tend to be accompanied by adverse side effects such as weight gain and increased blood pressure. In a study published in the journal NUTRAfoods, researchers have identified a specific composition of amino acids that could be used to safely treat burnout without the negative side effects of antidepressants.
Stress and Mental Health
Mental health is an ever-growing area of concern. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental illness affects nearly 45 million adults in the U.S. That means that just about one in every five adults in America are living with some form of mental illness. Accounting for about 20 percent of all claims, mental health conditions are the second most common disability diagnosis in the U.S. and are estimated to cost the country roughly $193 billion in lost earnings each year.
Stress is necessary for survival. It is our natural defense mechanism against perceived danger. When we’re faced with a challenging situation, our bodies respond physically by releasing hormones to prepare for either confrontation or evasion. This “fight-or-flight” response mechanism helps us to know when and how to react in times of danger, but if triggered constantly, it has the power to deteriorate both mental and physical health.
5-HTP and L-Tryptophan in Mental Health and the Treatment of Burnout
There is an undeniable overlap between burnout and depressive symptoms. Previous research found that the amino acids 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) and l-tryptophan, both chemical precursors of serotonin, are effective treatments for mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia without many of the adverse effects that are generally associated with the use of antidepressants. Now, scientists analyzing the effectiveness of long-term use of a particular formulation of the two amino acids have determined that 5-HTP and l-tryptophan are also effective at treating the symptoms of burnout without the adverse effects of antidepressants.
In the study, a total of 64 volunteers from varied backgrounds who were between the ages of 25 and 55 were administered “a combination of fast-release 5-HTP and timed-release L-Tryptophan” over the course of a month. The nutraceutical formulation was designed to make the 5-HTP immediately bioavailable, while continuously releasing the l-tryptophan over a six-hour period. The mental state, burnout severity and general well-being of each participant was assessed daily, with any adverse side effects also documented in the case report. The blood pressure rate, body mass index and heart rate of each participant was recorded from the beginning of the study until 21 days after the study ended.
An analysis of the resulting data showed that burnout severity improved continuously over the course of treatment with an absence of adverse effects on heart rate, blood pressure or BMI. Evidence suggests that long-term treatments would see even more significant improvements over time.
The team believes the effectiveness of serotonin precursors in treatment to substantiate the theory that burnout may be in part due to “an underlying serotonergic mechanism”. The authors state within their findings, “the results of this study confirm the involvement of serotonin in burnout and indicate that continuous and repeated stress could exhaust the pool of serotonin and/or interfere with the CNS availability of this neurotransmitter.”
Their results showed 5-HTP and l-tryptophan to be effective at improving the mental and physical well-being of those with the early signs of burnout. The authors conclude, “treatment with controlled release serotonin precursors clearly demonstrated promising results in slowing the progression of early burnout syndrome by alleviating symptoms as shown by improved MBI and motivational index scores.”
The Consequences of Burnout: Impacts on the Brain and Body
Addressing the cause and treating the symptoms of burnout is critical to curbing the long-term effects that constant stress can have on the body. When our stress response is triggered, the body revs up production of chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol, which are meant to increase energy, alertness and preparedness by upping blood pressure, heart rate, and blood glucose levels. Consistently high levels of these hormones hinder normal bodily functions like digestion, immune response and sleep-wake cycles.
Chronic stress is known to have a lasting impact on the physical structure of the brain and key systems of the body. Constant over-stimulation leads to premature aging and dysfunction in the nervous system, the HPA axis, the serotonergic system as well as emotion- and stress-regulating regions of the brain like the amygdala. Long-term stimulation of stress mechanisms can eventually lead to cortisol dysfunction and adrenal insufficiency, at which point, the symptoms of burnout are likely to become disruptive to both mental and physical health.
Signs of Burnout: Indications You Could Be Suffering From Too Much Stress
If not addressed, constant stress leads to the development of mental and physical health problems such as depression, obesity, heart disease, digestive problems and increased vulnerability to illness. Knowing what to look out for is important to be able to recognize the earliest signs of burnout. Here are some of the most common tells that the body is encountering too much stress:
- feelings of fatigue and exhaustion
- gastrointestinal difficulties
- difficulty maintaining focus, concentration and attention
- fixation on work or stressors during leisure time
- increased negativity and feelings of frustration
- a general lack of interest, drive and motivation
- decreased job performance
- lowered work and life satisfaction
- sexual dysfunction
- an increase in interpersonal troubles and social withdrawal
- poor impulse control with regard to eating, sleeping and consumption of alcohol or stimulants
Prevention and Remedy: Things You Can Do About Burnout
Outside of pharmaceutical treatments and natural supplements, the generally accepted antidote for burnout is much the same as the preventative measures one may use to avoid it. A combination of lifestyle changes and behavioral interventions can help to curb the symptoms of burnout:
- Be sure to get plenty of good quality sleep.
- Manage time effectively by staying organized and setting goals and priorities.
- Make ample time for relaxation and play.
- Devote time to learning and personal growth.
- Develop your support network of friends and family.
- Delegate tasks to others when things are too much.
- Find rewarding passions, challenges and hobbies unrelated to work.
- Known when to turn off your phone and email.
- Always pay attention to what your body is telling you.