The 3 Stages of Burnout and How to Fix It

UltimateHuman Team Sep 22, 2022
27 People Read
Table of Contents
  1. How to Test for Burnout
  2. Stage 1: “Adrenal Stress”
  3. Stage 2: “Adrenal Fatigue”
  4. Stage 3: “Adrenal Exhaustion”
  5. How to Fix Burnout
    1. A Word of Caution
  6. Conclusion

Written by: Jon Mitchell, PA-C

The word "burnout" gets thrown around a lot...

But what does it actually mean? And how do you know that you have it for sure?

Stressed Third Eye GIF by Cienna Smith

The most common symptoms of burnout — which is technically called HPA-Axis Dysfunction — include:

  • Fatigue throughout the day

  • Difficulty waking up in the morning

  • Poor recovery from workouts

  • Low libido

  • Depression and/or anxiety

  • Weight gain

  • Brain fog

Now, you don't necessarily have burnout if you're experiencing all of these symptoms... but it does make it more likely.

So, let's talk about how to test for it, the 3 stages to expect, and how to reverse it. 👇

How to Test for Burnout

One of the best ways to test for it is to use a 4-point salivary cortisol test and a salivary DHEA level.

This test collects your saliva 4 times throughout the day to measure your cortisol (stress hormone) levels at those times.

A normal cortisol chart should look like the one below... where cortisol peaks early in the morning (called the cortisol awakening response)... and it should taper off throughout the day:

Image source: RxHomeTest

As you start to enter the different stages of burnout... your cortisol and DHEA (steroid hormone) levels will start to hit abnormal levels:

Stage 1: “Adrenal Stress”

In the first stage of burnout your cortisol levels will be elevated and your DHEA levels will be normal.

Your body responds to high levels of stress in the short-term by raising cortisol levels, which helps mobilize blood sugar, increase your immune system, and alertness.

This is a normal response, but it becomes problematic if the stress continues for an extended period of time.

Stage 2: “Adrenal Fatigue”

In the second stage of burnout your cortisol levels may be slightly elevated or normal, but your DHEA levels will be low.

DHEA is a precursor to your sex hormones and will begin to drop if your body stays in a stressed state for an extended period of time.

Your cortisol levels are dropping in this stage, but not enough to be noticeable on the cortisol test.

Stage 3: “Adrenal Exhaustion”

In the final stage, both your cortisol and DHEA levels are low throughout the day.

This is when you are most likely to feel all of the symptoms listed above and they can be severe.

How to Fix Burnout

So, we've talked about how to test for it and how to identify its stages...

But how can we reverse burnout?

Well, it takes: Nourishment, rest, and time.

I wish I knew of a faster way to fix to this...

But as your burnout gets worse, so does the amount of time it takes to improve.

While there are herbs that can help in the short-term, such as the adaptogenic herbs ashwaghanda and rhodiola...

The main focus needs to be on nourishing the body.

This means doing things like:

  • Eating nutrient-rich foods and correcting any nutritional imbalances you have.

  • Significantly decreasing your physical activity to reduce stress on the body. Light activity like walking and gentle yoga are fine.

  • Getting PLENTY of sleep.

  • Limiting caffeine intake to reduce cortisol release.

  • Avoiding activities that stimulate your sympathetic nervous system... such as cold plunges, hyperventilation (like Wim Hof breathing), and working too hard.

  • Decreasing your workload or leaving a stressful work environment.

  • Drinking plenty of high-quality water.

  • Getting plenty of sun exposure and even using infrared light to help with recovery.

  • Doing breathing exercises to improve your heart rate variability (HRV).

A Word of Caution

Do not automatically assume you are healed... just because you start to feel better.

Some people start to workout hard again or take on more work...

And within a few days are back to feeling lousy again.

Don’t do this.

I tell my clients: Take your time & slowly increase your activity and workload.

You can also use an HRV-monitoring device to track your progress... because an increase in HRV indicates you are healing, whereas a decrease in HRV over time indicates you have more work to do.


Burnout is no fun...

It can sap you of your energy and leave you feeling completely exhausted.

If you think you have the symptoms, talk to your healthcare professional and get tested.

From there, you can develop a plan to move forward and start to feel better.


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Table of Contents
  1. How to Test for Burnout
  2. Stage 1: “Adrenal Stress”
  3. Stage 2: “Adrenal Fatigue”
  4. Stage 3: “Adrenal Exhaustion”
  5. How to Fix Burnout
    1. A Word of Caution
  6. Conclusion