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Is IBS a symptom of burnout?

Are you burnout or just really, really stressed? Let's study your symptoms to figure it out.

Published:

November 11, 2022

Written by:

KT Heins-Nagamoto

Managing Editor

Medically Reviewed by:

Dr. Max Pitman

Medical

Published:

November 11, 2022

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As many of the American workforce head back into office, navigate hybrid workplaces, or face another round of layoffs, they also may find themselves googling “how to beat burnout, “how to avoid burnout, and “what is quiet quitting?” 

As a Googler myself, I found that many of the online sources failed to answer my questions. I wanted a basic definition of burnout, sure, but I also wanted to know what the signs of burnout were, and how to tell if I was experiencing burnout, or you know, if I was just really, really stressed in a not-so-post-pandemic world. 

I’m a millennial who has always subscribed to hustle culture, and during the pandemic, I found myself challenged to be productive. Prior to lockdown, I had trouble setting boundaries and looking after my well-being, but with the emotional exhaustion and threat of sickness on my mind, I found that my relationship with work was taking an extreme toll on my mental health… and gut health. 

Pandemic anxiety was difficult for people with IBS

COVID-19, burnout, IBS; right now, all three can be connected. Stress is just one of many factors that can worsen IBS, and COVID-19 has taken a toll on the mental health of the 25 million Americans living with IBS, leading to many reporting worsening and hard-to-manage symptoms in the last two years.  

A recent survey of people living with IBS during the pandemic revealed that they experienced both an increased level of depression and anxiety, and at the same time worse diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain. This is likely because the stress of the pandemic can negatively impact the brain-gut axis— the body’s  communication pathway between the mind and gut—and this additional stress on the nervous system can lead to more intense IBS symptoms. Ever felt butterflies in your stomach because you’re nervous? Queasy before you go to the doctor or do something that frightens you? Your gut (and its trillions of microbes) talk to the brain constantly about changes in the gut, through the vagus nerve, and the brain responds by giving you a gut feeling. 

As the pandemic altered the routine of the average American, impacting social activities, exercise, even nutrition, it’s not surprising that IBS symptoms worsened as a result. 

Not to mention that the number of people with IBS is on the rise, with 16% of people experiencing new gastrointestinal issues after getting COVID. IBS, SIBO, GERD could all be considered symptoms of long COVID. 

What does the pandemic’s connection to IBS tell us about burnout? 

Burnout is a semi-permanent state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stressors, like a pandemic, a rapidly changing, more demanding work environment, long hours, or major changes to one’s home life. 

You might find yourself feeling cynical, anxious, depressed, mentally-distanced from your job or loved ones. You might be spending increased time in front of the television, and unable to have conversations. Or you might be feeling physical exhaustion, experiencing headaches, migraines, or symptoms of IBS. The way to recognize burnout is to ask yourself if you’re feeling this way consistently, and if you’re having trouble finding levity day-after-day.  

(The New York Times has an excellent breakdown of the differences between burnout and depression right here.)

“Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a long time to occur, and it’s not something that happens after one bad day of work.” Salvo Health’s Medical Director Dr. Max Pitman says, “The unrelenting stressors of a pandemic have accelerated the process though.” 

“Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a long time to occur, and it’s not something that happens after one bad day of work.”

According to a recent American Psychological Association survey of 1,501 U.S. adult workers:

  • 79% of employees had experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey. 
  • Nearly 3 in 5 employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%) and lack of effort at work (19%). 
  • Meanwhile, 36% reported cognitive weariness, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and an astounding 44% reported physical fatigue—a 38% increase since 2019.

When you’re experiencing burnout at such an extreme level, it’s difficult to look after oneself. Dr. Pitman clarifies, “Burnout is a multi-system problem in the body. It can affect your mood, sleep, and nutrition. You might not have the time or energy to take care of yourself, make yourself healthy and nutritious food, and get the movement you need throughout the day. It can also affect your relationships. All of these areas are influenced by burnout and affect your gut health and your microbiome too.”

Wondering at this point if your new symptoms of IBS are part of you experiencing burnout during the pandemic? It’s hard to say for sure, but there’s certainly a strong chance that IBS symptoms are connected in a number of ways to your burnout symptoms and more broadly to your mental health. 

How do I treat my burnout… and help my IBS? 

There's a tendency to think that taking a bit of PTO, going on vacation, or taking a day off is going to fix burnout, but work is waiting for you when you return and so is the stress you temporarily left behind. Plus, with so many Americans returning to work in person, you might be going back to the office with more significant gut health symptoms than you had before, thanks to your burnout. 

Dr. Pitman stresses the importance of making sustainable long-term changes to your routine, finding a new normal that can help your symptoms of burnout and IBS at the same time. 

“It’s important to remember that you don’t have to fix everything at once. You need to put things in order what’s most important to you, and try to make changes one at a time. If you think that sleep habits are what is most impacting you, make a commitment to turn off screens and social media past a certain point at night, or to try relaxation exercises like yoga or meditation at night to try to fix your sleep routine. Once you’ve tackled one habit, on to the next, whether it’s cooking more often for yourself, taking the stairs or exercising more.” 

Salvo Health has a number of tips as well as guides on improving your sleep schedule, nutrition, and movement. 

Well, it seems so simple on paper, but we at Salvo Health acknowledge that sometimes positive behavior change can’t happen without setting boundaries at work. Change also looks different for everyone. “It’s important for people to ask themselves if their job is sustainable, and if they’re in a place to make a bigger change to creating a work/life balance.” Dr. Pitman reminds us. 

To identify boundaries you want to set to start, ask yourself:

  • Do I set office hours for myself and abide by them?
  • Do I check work email or Slack messages outside of office hours?
  • Do I take enough breaks big or small? 
  • Do I jump at the chance to be a problem solver at all hours? 
  • Do I talk about how important my family and friends are to me at work?
  • Do I notify my coworkers and manager about upcoming important events?
  • Do I decline meetings that don’t pertain to my work?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you can start making small changes to your relationship with work that might be helpful to you creating more self-care routines, like eating regular, healthy meals, going for daily walks, or even sleeping eight hours a night. 

How Salvo Health can help you manage burnout and IBS

Because burnout impacts every part of you—mind, gut, body—treating it is very similar to how you would treat IBS on its own. Our doctors use a signature model of care, Whole Self Science, which gives guidance on creating positive nutrition, movement, and sleep routines in order to treat and manage one’s gut health. The benefits Salvo Health offers, including unlimited messaging with real doctors and health coaches on our app and custom care plan based on your symptoms, not only will help your gastrointestinal issues, but may also have an impact on your burnout through positive behavior change. Take our assessment to get started on your journey to better health. 

 

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Written by:

KT Heins-Nagamoto

Managing Editor

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