It’s been called “the second shift.” These days those additional hours of unpaid work that keep a family functioning make many people feel like they are constantly running on empty. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to be done.
It’s easy to imagine this dilemma is yours alone —that something like a time-management course could get you back on track. However, work-and-family-related stress is far from unique. It’s been identified as a public health crisis in the making.
These days experts are especially concerned about the so-called “sandwich generation,” people caught between trying to balance workplace pressures against the caregiving needs of both younger and older family members (and possibly those with special needs.) Juggling these often conflicting demands can be overwhelming. The unrelenting stress burns up energy, leaving physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion in its wake.
Experts have a name for this phenomenon: “burnout syndrome.” The concept has existed since the 1970’s when it was linked with pressures at work. Today, burnout has leaked into personal life. It is now recognized as a medical condition resulting from chronic stress. Left untreated it can lead to depression and physical illness.
One problem is that the underlying stresses are not easily resolved: family members’ need for care can’t be ignored. Another is that burnout may be dismissed as a function of personality traits, easily fixed with self-help or professional therapy. But while spiritual or psychological counselling can be helpful, it may not be enough. The mind and the body are tightly interwoven. By the time you feel “burned out,” it’s taking a toll on your body.
Research shows, for instance, that burnout can reshape your brain, affecting how it works and wearing it out before its time. If your memory lapses are becoming worrisome, chronic stress may be to blame. And, if you seem to be losing your grip on daily demands, it’s possible your problem-solving skills have been scorched by burnout.
Thanks to the relatively new area of research known as mind-body medicine, we understand that your body experiences (and remembers) emotional distress. It’s a complicated process; to over-simplify, when your internal alarm system goes off, your brain and your body respond, setting the stage for symptoms ranging from muscle tension and digestive problems to more serious conditions like heart disease and cancer.
You may not be able to limit your stress but you can take steps to break this cycle. Lifestyle factors like a high-quality diet and adequate exercise have been shown to support emotional health. This aspect of mind-body integration has steered scientists toward a part of your body known as the epigenome — the network of compounds surrounding your genes. Your genes don’t change but influences like the food you eat and the stress you experience affect how they behave, a process known as gene expression. We know, for instance, that certain B vitamins support a process known as DNA methylation, which affects the expression of certain genes involved in how you handle stress.
Here are some simple strategies that can help you deal with burnout. They support a more balanced relationship between your body and your mind, building resilience.
Eat a Healthy Diet: Did you know that your stomach has a brain of its own? It’s called the enteric nervous system and it communicates constantly with the brain in your head, giving new meaning to the phrase “you are what you eat.” Thinking about emotional well-being, it’s easy to overlook the healing power of nutritious food. And yet, we’ve long known that certain nutrients support body’s ability to cope with stress. These include healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C and some B vitamins, as well as the mineral magnesium.
Magnesium is a particularly effective weapon in any stress-busting arsenal. Not only does it help generate chemical messengers that support emotional well-being, it also works to suppress the production of stress hormones like cortisol. Unfortunately, most people don’t consume enough magnesium, in part because they eat too much ultra-processed food. Junk food is notoriously deficient in magnesium. Moreover, it’s been formulated to appeal to the pleasure centers in your brain, which makes you more susceptible to craving these salt-, sugar-, and fat-laden foods when you’re stressed. You’re also more vulnerable to self-medicating with beverages like soda, coffee and alcoholic drinks which devour magnesium, as does dealing with stress. Talk about a vicious cycle!
Magnesium can lend a strong helping hand to your biological support system. Foods rich in the nutrient include dark leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, avocados and whole grains, such as oatmeal, brown rice, buckwheat , farro and quinoa. It’s worth noting that whole grains are a particularly good choice when battling stress. In addition to magnesium they provide other stress-busting nutrients, like tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps your body produce the chemical messenger serotonin (known as the “good mood” neurotransmitter). Moreover, tryptophan promotes restful sleep, which also helps your body to deal with stress.
A breakfast of old-fashioned oatmeal or nut-and-seed-laden granola will get your day off to a good stress-busting start.
Like whole grains, whole foods in general contain a wide range of nutrients that work together to promote health. Research now shows that certain dietary approaches promote both physical and psychological well-being, the Mediterranean diet being the most-studied case in point. The Mediterranean diet is based primarily on plant-based foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, plus healthy fats obtained mainly from fish and olive oil. Research shows that it builds psychological resilience. It works its magic, in part by positively influencing gene expression.
Don’t Forget Your Gut. When it comes to mind-body integration, another new and exciting avenue of research is opening up — the living jungle of microbes residing in your digestive tract. Basically, these microscopic creatures’ direct traffic on the communication highway running between your gut and your brain. These are complicated processes and they haven’t been fully mapped out, but we do know that eating more fiber-rich plant foods ramps up the numbers of “good guy” bacteria. When these microbes digest components of plant foods, they produce chemical substances like short-chain fatty acids. These substances communicate with cells throughout your body, supporting positive gene expression and helping your body deal with stress.
Enjoy regular physical activity. Numerous studies have linked regular exercise with building psychological and physical resilience. At its simplest, testing yourself physically can show you how strong you actually are. Fitness buffs have long known that exercise encourages the body to produce feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. Exercise has also been shown to improve gene expression in ways that help you to cope with stress and build resistance to its negative effects. Those helpful microbes that live in your gut also respond well to physical activity. One study showed that 6 weeks of intensive training ramped up production of stress-busting short-chain fatty acids in certain participants.
Practice stress reduction techniques: Research shows that practicing stress reduction techniques like yoga, meditation and Tai Chi can build psychological resilience by improving gene expression. While no research has specifically studied the benefits of prayer, from a physiological perspective the dynamic is similar to those involved in mindfulness-based stress-reduction techniques like meditation. These practices stimulate what is known as the “relaxation response,” the opposite extreme from a stress reaction. They have been shown to stimulate the expression of numerous stress-busing genes that can also spark positive metabolic changes like lower blood pressure.
Balancing work pressures with family needs is a serious challenge and at the end of the day it’s easy to feel that you haven’t measured up. Real life is a cloth woven from threads of different textures and its edges may be ragged. You may feel overwhelmed, but you are not powerless. You can take steps to strengthen the fabric. Start by sending your brain a message: I’m taking care of my body to help you with your work. It will be listening.
Judith Finlayson is the author of You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics, and the Origins of Chronic Disease. Visit her at www.judithfinlayson.com.
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