Working & mothering can be a hard gig. Exhaustion has become the norm for many mums. But feeling exhausted ALL the time is NOT normal.
I remember pre-kids I could push my body to the limits. I was completing a PhD at the time, as well as working as a lecturer & tutor at Macquarie University. I was staying up late meeting work deadlines, eating poor quality foods, and I hardly had any ‘relaxation’ time. My ‘chill-out’ time involved high-intensity workouts 6 days a week, sometimes twice a day!
Looking back, I could see signs that I was burning myself out, but those physical signs only seemed minor, and not enough for me to be concerned about at the time. So, I just kept grinding my way through life.
It wasn’t until I had my two babies, and the added stressors that come along with it (pregnancy, traumatic birth, physical trauma, breastfeeding, sleepless nights, and the emotional rollercoaster of becoming a new mum, while also trying to juggle work), that I felt full-blown burnout, both at a physical and mental level.
Burnout: all too common among working mothers
My story is an all too common story, especially among Mums juggling businesses, work & finances. So many Mums say the same thing as what I did – I was ‘fine’ before I had kids, now I feel like I can’t handle anything!
Research shows that working mothers are very susceptible to ‘burnout’. While it is more commonly known that 1 out of 5 mothers’ develop post-natal depression in the first 2 years after childbirth, more recent data reveals that mothers juggling work and home-life, face prolonged pressures that can lead to burnout, regardless of a child’s age – https://www.latrobe.edu.au/news/articles/2015/release/mental-health-link-to-work-life-balance.
What is burnout?
So what exactly is burnout? Metaphorically, you could say you have been burning the candle at both ends too intensely, for too long. Burnout often happens when there are too many stressors, including emotional stressors (like juggling demands of working & mothering, relationship issues, past trauma), physical stressors (like poor diet, too much or too little exercise), pain (like muscular-skeletal pain, headaches, or gut pain), and hidden inflammation (like nasty pathogens in the gut, or a body full of toxins).
All of these stressors will burn you out, and more specifically, burn your body systems out – your neuroendocrine system, your gastrointestinal system and your detoxification system, as shown in my Body Systems Model:
As a Functional Medicine Practitioner, I conduct functional lab tests to assess if/which body systems have burned-out due to prolonged stressors. The more imbalanced these body systems become, the more it causes physical symptoms, and also mental-emotional burnout, which can cause further stress and further burnout.
The 7 physical signs of burnout
Now there are many physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual signs of mummy burnout, but in this article, I want to focus on the 7 most common physical signs of burnout, and ones that I personally experienced after having babies. These physical signs are big warning signals from your body, telling you that one or more of your body systems are stressed out and need support (before you crumble in an exhausted and overwhelmed mess!).
- FATIGUE – And not just the usual feeling tired at night after a long day of work and mothering. I’m talking about struggling to get out of bed in the morning, needing (or wanting) to nap throughout the day, the 3 pm slump, or feeling so exhausted in the evening that you want to fall asleep at 7 pm.
- MOOD DISORDERS – Things like anger, snappiness & irritability (I call this the Dragon Mum!), or full-blown anxiety or depression. While these signs show up as a ‘mental-emotional issue, 95% of the time these mood disorders arise because of a physical body system imbalance.
- WEIGHT ISSUES – No matter how hard you try, you just can’t budge that belly fat! The usual dieting and exercise that used to work to lose weight, just aren’t working anymore. This is a big sign that your metabolic system is out-of-whack.
- HORMONE IMBALANCES – You know what I’m talking about: PMS (sugar cravings, emotional, fatigue, acne), irregular cycle, and painful, heavy periods. This is also something that conventional wisdom says is ‘normal.’ But I’m here to tell you: PMS and the like is NOT normal and it is a sign that your body/mind is under stress.
- LOW IMMUNITY – The kids are bringing all the bugs home from daycare/school, and you pick up every one of them! If you’re constantly catching colds, flu or developing infections (i.e. chest, sinus, vaginal or gut infections), this is a strong sign your immune system is struggling and that you need to treat your body with some TLC.
- GUT ISSUES – Mums don’t usually connect gut issues to burnout, but it is a very common sign I see as a clinician. Symptoms like bloating, heartburn, cramping, diarrhoea or constipation often flare up when Mum is under stress.
- POOR EXERCISE RECOVERY – You don’t understand why you can’t exercise like you used to! Even doing pilates is a struggle, and you feel muscle soreness for days. Poor exercise recovery (and muscle/joint pain in general) is a sure sign that you’ve been going too hard, and you need to find some balance. Feeling exhausted – rather than energised – after exercise is also a sign of burnout.
What can you do about burnout?
My motto is always: Test, don’t guess! If you are struggling with any of these physical burnout signs (and especially if they aren’t getting better with the usual rest or holidays), you need to work out what body systems have burned out, as these are very often the cause of your symptoms. This is how I finally got on top of my own burnout.
In functional medicine, we do this with specialised lab testing which tests the stress & sex hormones using saliva, the mitochondria, the brain, and the detoxification pathways using urine, and the gut using stool or breath specimens. These tests go beyond what your GP would usually test for, and often uncover some pretty nasty imbalances when even all your GP tests have come back as ‘fine.’
Once you understand what body systems are out-of-whack and you begin to support these systems with natural medicines, you then need to identify and treat the root cause of the body system burnout. Often the underlying causes are mental-emotional, environmental, relationship or lifestyle-related, but they can also sometimes be genetic or the fact that you picked up a nasty parasite on an overseas trip a few years ago.
Let me repeat – feeling exhausted and irritable and PMS-y and the like may be common in many working mums, but it is not normal! Your body is very intelligent, and these physical signs are your body’s way of telling you to slow down and make a change. I believe that every mum can have a vibrant, healthy body AND still be productive and successful. It’s all about finding balance and healing anybody systems that may have burned out over the years, as well as overcoming any root causes that could prevent your recovery.
If you’re a working mum and struggling with burnout, here is a free video course series all about hormonal & gut burnout. Register for this here: https://www.chrisandfilly.fm/minicourse
Filipa Bellette is a Functional Medicine Practitioner & Clinical Nutritionist. Filipa is the Co-Founder of virtual health & wellness practice, Chris & Filly Functional Medicine. They are best known for helping busy, burned-out professional working parents become healthy, have better work-life balance, and have a happy family. They call this a Power Parent! With her husband, Chris Bellette, Filipa has worked with over 2,000+ burned-out clients in the last 10 years, with her own passion for Mummy burnout coming from her own personal experience of anxiety and body breakdown after she had her first baby. She is also a PhD thought-leader, author and award-winner writer in Human Rights. www.chrisandfilly.fm