Parenting is an all-consuming, life-long commitment, and two-thirds of working-class parents are exhausted. It is a nearly impossible lifestyle, to work full-time and be a parent full-time, so in some cases the parent either quits their job or has little or no time for their children. As a result, what is known as “working parental burnout” occurs.
Dr. Puja Agarwal, a neurologist, defined parental burnout as the mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion that results from the chronic stress of parenting. In this context, mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion is caused by the chronic stress of work and parenting.
But there is a link between diet and burnout, and working parents can incorporate some tips into their daily lives to alleviate burnout and its symptoms.
Study Suggests 2/3 of Parents Experience Burnout
As a working parent, burnout is almost unavoidable because every parent needs a stable job to maintain, care for, and manage a home.
However, according to researcher Dr. Moira Mikolajczak (2019 & 2020), research shows that parental burnout is detrimental and can cause desertion and suicidal ideation more frequently than depression. Notably, the negative impact of burnout is widespread.
From a survey conducted from January to April of 2021, the Ohio State University Office of the Chief Wellness Officer and College of Nursing released a report on burnout’s impact on working parents and their children. According to the study, 66 percent (or two-thirds) of working parents experience burnout. Female gender, the number of children living in the home, parental anxiety, having children diagnosed with either anxiety or ADHD, and parental concern that their children may have an undiagnosed mental health disorder are the strongest associations with working parental burnout.
Another finding based on parental self-reporting is that working parent burnout is strongly related to their children’s internalizing, externalizing, and attention behaviors. Sadness, excessive worrying, feeling down, and other negative emotions are internalizing behaviors. Externalizing and attention behaviors include varying concentration, frequent distraction, inability to sit still, disobeying rules, and teasing and fighting with other children. All of these behaviors are linked to the prevalence of working parent burnout.
While these findings show that two-thirds of working parents experience burnout, it is essential to note that everyone can experience burnout to varying degrees depending on personal circumstances and other factors. Most studies on working parental burnout show that mothers burn out more than fathers.
Symptoms of Working Parental Burnout and How to Identify Them
Although clinical diagnosis does not include parental burnout, some psychologists refer to it as a subtype of burnout—a work-induced condition that the World Health Organization has now classified as a syndrome. Notably, parental burnout is not included in the DSM-5, the “Bible” of American psychiatry.
Regardless, possible signs of working parental burnout include:
- Depression, more likely to develop in severe working parental burnout cases. Research shows a risk of depression in extreme burnout situations.
- Constant exhaustion and tiredness.
- Feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, or hopelessness. You start to feel unaccomplished and unproductive.
- Changes in appetite and erratic sleeping patterns. Sleep deprivation can lead to severe conditions such as an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, and stroke.
- Loss of motivation in all areas, leading to job dissatisfaction and other deterrent effects.
- Isolation, loneliness, and detachment from the world, leading to the use of alcohol or drugs to cope, which leads to a variety of health problems.
- Feeling irritable towards your children, coworkers, clients, or customers.
- Lack of concentration, including forgetfulness.
- Experiencing constant headaches, stomach and bowel pain, blurred vision, and increased sick days.
Dr. Jennifer Yen, a psychiatrist at UTHealth Houston, stated that the line between burnout and regular periods of parenting is unclear, making burnout challenging to identify. Dr. Yen advised parents to look for symptoms such as irregular sleep patterns, irritability, fatigue, aches and pains, or changes in appetite and mood. The severity of those symptoms and how they affect daily activities distinguish burnout.
Dr. Yen also identified some red flags of parental burnout, such as feeling angry or resentful about caring for your children and physical and emotional isolation from them. She added that burnt-out parents feel trapped and fantasize about leaving.
There have been many self-assessment questionnaires published to identify trends in identifying burnout’s symptoms. However, it is unclear how these questionnaires measure burnout and differentiate it from other illnesses. The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is the most commonly used questionnaire. It is available for various professional groups; however, these questionnaires are intended for research purposes only, and medical professionals should not use them. These questionnaires are ineffective for determining whether a person is suffering from burnout or the symptoms resulting from another illness.
Even so, it is nearly impossible to diagnose burnout based on its symptoms because they are similar to those of mental or psychosomatic illnesses such as chronic fatigue, anxiety disorders, and depression. To ascertain if burnout or another condition causes these symptoms, speak with a doctor about them.
The Relationship Between Gut and Burnout
The gut is among the most delicate organs of the human body, being affected by emotions such as anger, anxiety, sadness, elation, and others. Those are reasons why we sometimes have a gut-wrenching experience, feel nauseous in certain situations, have butterflies in our stomach, and have a gastrointestinal tract (GIT) upset for no physical basis.
The nervous system and the brain innervate a large portion of the gut system. This is called the gut-brain axis. Burnout harms the brain and nervous system, which affects digestion, hormone homeostasis, physical and emotional functions, and overall gut health. In essence, when the body experiences chronic stress as a result of burnout, nutrients in the body are transported by the blood to organs such as the adrenals to prevent total body shutdown. Following burnout, the body enters a survival mode. For example, in a gunfight, the last thing a person thinks about is whether or not they are hungry or what they will eat.
The severity of burnout disrupts energy, blood supply, and innervation to the brain and nervous system. Due to this effect, the body suffers from poor nutrient absorption, altered appetite, sporadic and unhealthy bowel movements, reduced gut immunity, poor digestion, limited digestive enzyme production, and poor well-being. Numerous body physiological and anatomical functions are hampered due to these defective functions. Burnout harms the gut, causing the brain to function poorly.
This trend demonstrates how burnout affects all aspects of human health and well-being and its adverse effects on gut function. It suggests that while combating burnout and its symptoms is critical, gut level healing through a good diet may be an essential ancillary in alleviating burnout and its symptoms.
Top 7 Foods to Fight Burnout and Its Symptoms
Burnout harms the gut and can cause a variety of health problems. Research suggests that a healthy diet has an inverse relation with burnout symptoms.
The following are the top seven foods that have been shown to combat burnout and its symptoms:
Chocolate is among the most widely consumed foods on the planet. Studies show that dark chocolate can improve physical health, particularly stress relief. It does this in part by regulating cortisol levels in the body.
Cortisol has a variety of uses, including regulating our reactions to stressful situations. Cortisol is undeniably crucial for stress management, but high levels after chronic stress can harm health.
According to a dark chocolate study conducted on sixty-five healthy men, thirty-one participants ate 50 grams of dark chocolate while 34 men ate the same amount of white chocolate colored to look like dark chocolate but lacking in flavonoids. The men engaged in two stressful activities two hours after consuming the chocolate. Researchers measured their stress hormone levels before and after the activities. According to the results, the dark chocolate eaters produced less cortisol and epinephrine. Their bodies did not react strongly to the stress and vice versa.
In another study, 60 men and women consumed 40 grams of dark, white, or milk chocolate daily. White chocolate induced stress, whereas dark or milk chocolate reduced stress by two to three points. They found the stress-relieving effect of the two chocolates to be greater in females than males.
When we consume many sweets, our bodies go into storage mode, causing us to gain weight. So, if you want to eat dark chocolate without worrying about gaining weight, eat it alone so you can taste and feel every bit of it in your mouth. This will reduce the tendency to overeat. Dark chocolate is preferred over other types of chocolate because it provides more effective and robust health benefits. Furthermore, the higher the cocoa content, the healthier the chocolate. Choose dark chocolate with at least 80 percent cocoa content.
For a light, flavorful pick-me-up, try this gluten-free, vegan dark chocolate avocado mousse.
Swiss chard is a leafy dark green vegetable with significant amounts of vitamins, plant compounds, and minerals essential for overall health.
One cup of cooked Swiss chard (175g) contains 36% magnesium and is high in copper, iron, potassium, vitamin E, and calcium. The total magnesium content of Swiss chard is essential for stress management. Research shows magnesium levels are reduced after anxiety, chronic stress, and panic attacks, making magnesium important for combating burnout and its symptoms.
There are a ton of chard recipes to try. Throw a handful into salads, soups, wraps, stews, or sandwiches, or try this delicious Ricotta and Swiss Chard Cannelloni.
Ashwagandha, an evergreen shrub that grows in Africa, Asia and southern Europe, has long been used to boost energy, improve concentration, and alleviate stress. Extracts or powders derived from the plant’s roots or leaves are essential for treating various medical conditions.
Ashwagandha is classified as an adaptogen because it assists the body in dealing with stress. Studies suggest that it regulates heat shock proteins (Hsp70), stress-activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK-1), and cortisol. Furthermore, it inhibits the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which controls the body’s stress response.
According to these findings, 58 people who took 250 or 600 mg of Ashwagandha extract for eight weeks experienced a significant reduction in stress and cortisol levels compared to those who took a placebo. When compared to the placebo group, their sleep quality improved. Furthermore, research shows that Ashwagandha can alleviate symptoms of other health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and others, making the herb essential for combating burnout and its symptoms.
Ashwagandha is available as a supplement, in capsule or extract form. It’s pretty easy to mix up your own Ashwagandha sleep tonic.
Matcha powder is a green tea popular among health enthusiasts due to its high concentration of L-theanine, a non-protein amino acid with powerful anti-stress properties.
Matcha contains more L-theanine than other green tea varieties because it is made from green tea leaves. As a result, an increase in L-theanine content is critical.
In a fifteen-day study, 36 people consumed 4.5 grams of matcha powder daily. The results show a significant decrease in the activities of the stress marker salivary alpha-amylase, compared to the placebo group.
For a more flavorful mug, try this matcha latte.
Chickpeas are high in magnesium, vitamin B, selenium, zinc, copper, manganese, and potassium, essential for stress relief. Chickpeas are also high in L-tryptophan, which stimulates the body’s production of mood-regulating neurotransmitters.
According to research, foods high in chickpeas can significantly improve brain health, mental performance, and stress reduction. Furthermore, research shows that nine thousand people who followed a Mediterranean diet high in chickpeas were happier and less stressed than those who followed the typical Western diet high in processed foods.
There are several chickpea hummus recipes. Here’s a creamy, dreamy one.
Broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable with numerous health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, and other mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Broccoli is high in nutrients like vitamin C, folate, and magnesium, which can help with depressive and burnout symptoms.
Broccoli contains sulforaphane, a neuroprotective compound that can influence calmness and antidepressant effects. One cup (184 grams) of cooked broccoli contains about 20 percent of the DV for vitamin B6, which, when consumed in large amounts, can reduce the risk of depression and anxiety in burnout women.
This broccoli fennel soup is a great way to add more broccoli to your meal.
Chronic stress can cause cortisol dysfunction, leading to pain, inflammation, and other adverse effects. Consuming carbohydrate-rich foods such as sweet potatoes can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
According to research on women with high BMI, those who ate a diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense carbs for eight weeks significantly decreased salivary cortisol levels compared to those who ate the standard American diet rich in refined carbs.
Sweet potatoes are an excellent carbohydrate option because they are high in nutrients essential for stress response and regulation, such as potassium, magnesium, and vitamin C. Try this easy roasted sweet potato with ginger & coriander.
Foods to Avoid to Stave Off Burnout and Its Symptoms
The gut, brain, and nervous system are interconnected, so what you eat can affect your feelings. As a result, understanding foods that cause chronic inflammation and exacerbate burnout symptoms is critical, as this is a practical step toward managing mood, combating burnout and its symptoms, and increasing energy levels.
You should avoid the foods listed below because they can exacerbate the effects of burnout:
Processed foods: Avoid unhealthily processed and packaged foods such as baked goods and soda because they contain a lot of refined and added sugar, which can flood the brain with too much glucose. This effect can cause inflammation in the brain, fatigue, and depression.
Don’t consume industrial seed oils: Grapeseed, soybean, corn, palm oils, and sunflower are examples of seed oils. The industrial process used to produce these oils increases the levels of inflammatory omega-6 and fatty acids while decreasing the levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3. Excessive consumption of omega-6-acid-rich foods has been shown to cause depression and other burnout symptoms.
Avoid refined and added sugars: Ketchup, French fries, and salad dressings all contain refined sugars. As a result, the risk of inflammation, anxiety, and mood swings increases with their consumption.
Steer far from fried foods: Fried foods have a high tendency to be prepared with unhealthy fats, leading to cardiovascular disease and other health problems.
In 2016, scientists studied 715 factory workers and their levels of depression and fried food consumption and assessed resilience. The findings show that people who ate a lot of fried food had a higher risk of depression.
Avoid artificial sweeteners: There are numerous articles on sugar substitutes and how they can help you lose weight. However, studies show that a variety of artificial sweeteners can cause depression. One study shows that people who consume artificial sweeteners are more likely to suffer from depression than those who do not.
Furthermore, research has shown that artificial sweeteners are toxic to the brain, altering the concentrations of mood-regulating neurotransmitters.
Reduce your intake of artificial sweeteners by avoiding packaged beverages and replacing them with agave nectar or honey in your homemade drinks.
Progress Is Gradual
Burnout progresses gradually, so you may not notice symptoms immediately. Your body and brain can only tolerate a certain amount of burnout before succumbing to total breakdown and poor well-being.
Recognize the signs, identify the root cause, identify the immediate changes you can make, including nutritional changes, and examine your options. Also, reclaim control, set boundaries, practice self-compassion, pay attention to your needs, do what makes you happy, and consult a therapist.
While being a working parent is all-consuming, it can be managed and balanced correctly with the right approach. Burnout is only temporary and can be avoided if you follow the advice in this article.
If you are struggling, do not hesitate to seek advice from a healthcare professional.