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Adrenal Burnout Syndrome

By Dr. Paul C. Eck and Dr. Larry Wilson



Introduction to Burnout

The most common complaints seen in doctors' offices today include fatigue, depression, anxiety, allergies, candida and hypoglycemia. These and many other symptoms can often be traced to a poorly understood syndrome, referred to as the adrenal burnout syndrome.

This paper is intended to provide you with a definition of burnout, symptoms and signs of burnout, how burnout occurs, who suffers from burnout, its effects on body chemistry, on one's personality and how recovery from burnout is undertaken.

Burnout can best be defined as a major breakdown in the energy producing systems of the body. Burnout differs from simple fatigue in that one can recover from fatigue with a good night's sleep or a vacation, whereas burnout cannot be corrected simply with rest.

Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

Burnout can occur in varying degrees of severity. When burnout is severe, its effects are devastating for the individual and often for family and close associates. The principal physical symptom that initially identifies burnout is overwhelming fatigue upon awakening after eight to ten hours sleep or after a short nap. In short, the individual feels exhausted.

Depending upon how severe the burnout problem is, many other symptoms that may occur include:

  • Distaste for meat protein due to severely impaired digestion.

  • Craving for sweets due to a need for a quick energy source.

  • Lowered resistance to disease and/or chronic infections due to an impaired immune response.

  • Changes in appetite, often alternating between a ravenous appetite and no appetite at all.

  • Symptoms of hypoglycemia and/or diabetes due to decreased or increased glucocorticoid activity, respectively.

  • Low blood pressure. Infrequently, a fast oxidizer will experience high blood pressure.

  • Fluctuation in weight, due to excessive protein breakdown and increased fat deposition.

  • Inability to adequately cope with daily life stresses.

  • Reduced work performance.

  • Loss of initiative and a sense of hopelessness.

  • Disinterest in sex, due to an excessive fight-or-flight response.

  • With worsening burnout, disinterest in all aspects of one's life.

  • Mental depression that can lead to despair and suicidal thoughts.

  • Fears, phobias, agoraphobia and/or anxiety, due to an excessive fight-or-flight response.

  • Disinterest in one's appearance.

  • Psychological withdrawal, due to an excessive fight-or-flight response.

  • Feeling that one's life is empty and lacks purpose.

  • Dwelling on the past (the good ol' days).

  • Inability to concentrate or 'spaciness'.

  • Attraction to stimulants, leading to a wide variety of addictions.

  • In children: hyperactivity, behavioral disorders, attention deficit and failure to thrive syndrome in severe cases.

  • In teenagers: delinquency, drugs, alcoholism and suicidal thoughts.

It is critical to realize that all the above symptoms are related to a severe energy deficit. Many of the above symptoms represent various adaptations to burnout. That is, the person is compensating for his lack of energy by changing his behavior. One may be attracted to various stimulants and/or drugs, to relieve his depression and provide him with a semblance of feeling alive and well.

Dietary Changes in Burnout

Obsessive cravings and dietary habits that are common in our society today are often attributable to burnout. Some of these include the chocolate habit, vegetarianism, sugar addiction and appetite disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.


Is there some special reason why almost everyone craves chocolate? Chocolate is almost a perfect food for the person in burnout because it contains large amounts of sugar, which provides a short-term energy boost to a person with a low energy level. (Later, however, there is a rebound effect.) Chocolate also contains relatively large amounts of magnesium; an essential mineral required for energy production and release of stored energy.

In addition, chocolate contains high quantities of copper. Copper is also essential for energy production and to reduce excessive glucocorticoid activity. People in burnout usually suffer from an inability to properly mobilize copper. Although copper is present, it is biounavailable, largely due to an adrenal insufficiency problem. These individuals often benefit from taking copper.


As a person moves toward burnout, hydrochloric acid production decreases and the ability to adequately digest animal protein diminishes accordingly. Copper toxicity and zinc deficiency also interfere with the ability of the pancreas to secrete trypsin and chymotrypsin. These are required for adequate digestion of meat protein.

Meat protein can cause heaviness, sluggish digestion, gas and bloating in those with burnout. Initially, the problem is only with red meat. As the condition progresses, the same occurs with poultry and fish. Finally the individual finds himself preferring a totally vegetarian diet. The extent to which one avoids meat protein is an excellent criterion for measuring the extent of one's burnout problem.

Often, other reasons are given for the vegetarian regime, to save money and to prevent animal cruelty, etc. However, upon the careful questioning of many vegetarians, the essential reason is they are no longer able to adequately digest meat protein.

The vegetarian craze today is undoubtedly due in part to the widespread incidence of burnout. We know this to be true because as a person recovers from burnout, they reacquire their taste for animal protein. So we find that vegetarianism represents a defensive or adaptive measure that is needed when a person is near or in burnout.

For more information on vegetarianism, see Vegetarianism and Body Chemistry: A Research Report.

Sugar Addiction

An individual in burnout has a very difficult time maintaining normal blood sugar levels. The reason is that the normal energy pathway for production of glucose from carbohydrates and fats is not operating well. Hence one desires to consume sugar directly to provide fuel for the cells.

Blood sugar regulation depends upon many factors including optimal adrenal activity, the secretion of insulin and cortisone, optimal liver function, as well as adequate digestion and assimilation of carbohydrates and fats.

Many people in burnout have wildly fluctuating blood sugar levels for the above reasons. Others suffer from chronically low blood sugar levels or hypoglycemia. Others have diabetes (high blood sugar), but they are unable to utilize or burn all the sugar they have in their blood. Any of the above malfunctions will result in an intense craving for sugar and simple carbohydrates.

Because sugar is the simplest form of fuel, it can practically be used or burned in the body for energy exactly as it is. Sugar craving may be a necessary defense measure needed to avoid an impending catastrophe. The brain does not have the ability to store sugar and if glucose levels drop below about 65mg/100 ml, an individual will frequently experience extreme anxiety, confusion and nervousness. People have become violent when blood sugar levels fall precipitously.

Alcohol craving can also occur for the same reasons as above. Alcohol can be used as a substitute fuel instead of sugar. Based upon our research, many alcoholics are in a state of burnout.


Zinc is one of the elements specifically depleted in burnout victims. Zinc is essential in appetite regulation. As zinc levels diminish, loss of taste and smell develop resulting in a loss of appetite and disinterest in food. This is why copper toxic individuals suffer from a loss of appetite.

Copper, another essential mineral that is also intimately involved in appetite regulation, is out of balance with zinc in 100% of burnout sufferers. Depending on the severity of the zinc/copper ratio imbalance, numerous metabolic dysfunctions including anorexia or bulimia can easily develop.

How Does Burnout Develop?

Although burnout essentially represents a physical energy breakdown, it can be brought on by any kind of stress - physical or emotional. Many types of stress, if severe enough or of long enough duration, can result in burnout.

Stress can include excessive physical activity, family tensions, job related stress, emotional upsets and even negative attitudes and thoughts. These have a detrimental effect upon behavior and body functioning.

Essentially, stress causes depletion of specific vital nutrients faster than they can be replaced by one's dietary intake. As the body's nutrient reserves become depleted, the energy producing glands—the thyroid and adrenal glands—are unable to function normally (maintain homeostasis) and distressing symptoms begin to appear or present symptoms are magnified.

An inadequate diet of course hastens the burnout process. However, it must be cautioned that burnout can occur in the presence of an apparently adequate diet.

All too often, as vital nutrients are depleted, toxic metals accumulate in the tissues. Lead, mercury, cadmium, aluminum and specifically copper, interferes with the normal functions of critical enzyme systems, further impairing the body's energy system.

Burnout may occur rapidly, following a single severe stress, but more often than not burnout occurs slowly and insidiously from a combination of stress and an inadequate diet. A particular event can trigger burnout, but in the great majority of cases, it may only be the straw that broke the camel's back. For example, a divorce, or a death in the family, commonly triggers a burnout condition in susceptible individuals. However in all too many cases, one's health is extremely fragile and the stressful event is the final blow that triggers the burnout syndrome.

Who Suffers From Burnout?

There is a prevalent myth that only busy executives suffer from burnout. Nothing could be further from the truth. Housewives are equally or in certain instances, more prone to burnout than men and while some occupations are known for their ability to produce burnout, it can occur with any occupation.

Burnout is no respecter of age. Today, we commonly find children in burnout. This occurs because their mothers were approaching or in burnout while pregnant, so the child's body chemistry is abnormal from birth.

Today we are seeing more and more burnout babies. These babies tend to suffer from chronic ear infections, poor appetites, sugar cravings, failure to thrive syndrome and often hyperactivity.

Some children survive infancy intact, but family and school pressures combined with junk food diets precipitate a burnout crisis at a very early age. These children frequently develop allergies, dark circles under their eyes, suffer from learning disability problems, attention deficits and other vague complaints.

The teenage years are one of the most common periods in which we see burnout occurring. Peer pressure and puberty add to and perpetuate stress. Because the body is growing rapidly, nutrient requirements are exceptionally high. At the same time, teenage diets are notoriously inadequate. The result is overwhelming fatigue, inability to concentrate in school and attraction to alcohol and drugs. In all too many cases, suicide seems the only way to relieve the feeling that life is not worth living in burnout.

If physicians, nurses and mental health workers were able to detect the simple symptoms of burnout, no doubt many lives could be redeemed. Often it only requires one simple question. Do you feel exhausted upon arising in the morning?

In summary, burnout can occur at any age in both sexes.

Burnout and Body Chemistry

Our bodies continually process food and convert it to energy to support vital life functions. Energy synthesis is analogous in a vague way to the fuel system of an automobile. Adequate energy production depends upon:

  • adequate nutrient intake,
  • adequate digestion and absorption of food,
  • transport of nutrients into the cells and
  • optimal combustion or oxidation of sugars, fats and proteins to release energy.

Energy production requires thousands of enzyme reactions. An enzyme is a protein that acts as a catalyst or enabler in the body. Enzymes (metalloenzymes) often require minerals as activators. Magnesium, potassium, manganese, zinc, chromium and calcium are among the most important minerals that are required in just the right amounts for optimal enzyme activity.

Vitamins are also required for the chemical reactions that produce energy. The B-complex vitamins are required in what are referred to as the energy cycles, where final conversion of food to energy takes place in each body cell. As with the minerals, there is an optimum amount of each vitamin that is required and excessive amounts of vitamins can cause as many health problems as too little.

The thyroid and adrenal glands are particularly important in the energy system. These energy-producing and regulating glands require specific nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, manganese, B vitamins and others to function optimally. More important than amount of nutrients are the balance of nutrients.

Stress of any kind not only hastens the burnout process by increasing the demand or need for nutrients but creates an imbalance between nutrients. Some nutrients, such as zinc, become severely deficient within minutes of a severe stress.

Myths About Burnout

A good way to summarize our understanding of burnout is by noting seven myths about burnout.

Myth #1. Burnout is a psychological problem. No, it is a physical problem, although psychological factors may contribute to its cause. Burnout is not "just in your head."

Myth #2. A person in burnout just lies around all day. In fact, many people in burnout hold full-time jobs and appear to be in good health. But they are tired and often require stimulants to keep going. They may use their work to forget how tired they are. This may go on for years before a serious condition arises.

Myth #3. Vigorous exercise is good for the person in burnout. People in burnout are often attracted to vigorous exercise as a temporary fix. However, over time it can further exhaust their bodies.

Myth #4. A vacation, diet, or vitamin product will correct burnout. Most people never recover from burnout. It takes a commitment to health, a nutritional regimen and often other natural therapies as well to pull out of burnout.

Myth #5. Burnout happens mainly to men in high-stress occupations. In fact, it occurs to both sexes at any age.

Myth #6. Burnout only affects the physical body. No. It affects every area of life. Work quality often suffers. Relationships suffer because a person loses interest in many activities, including his partner. Energy must be conserved just to stay alive. Often the partner does not understand what is happening, which makes it worse.

Myth #7. Smoking and a hectic lifestyle cause burnout. This is possible, but it can also be the reverse. A person in burnout is attracted to stimulants such as smoking, drugs, alcohol or excessive activity to compensate for feelings of exhaustion.

Recovery from Burnout

Recovery from burnout is analogous to remodeling a house or rebuilding the engine of an automobile. It is a complex task, which cannot be rushed and must be accomplished in stages. Too rapid a change in body chemistry would produce severe dysfunctions, like trying to replace all the foundation blocks of a house all at once.

Many people, even when the problem is recognized, never recover from burnout. Some individuals experience a partial recovery, but few ever experience the energy levels they had prior to burnout. It is difficult to truly reverse burnout because recovery involves nothing less than rebuilding the energy system of the body. This not only requires time and a commitment to health, it also requires specific nutritional balancing and supplementation to replace lost vital nutrients, to eliminate toxic metals and to balance the oxidation or metabolic rate.

An important hindrance to recovery from burnout is that there is little reserve energy to draw upon to effect a positive change. While food and supplementary nutrients provide the raw materials with which to rebalance body chemistry, vital energy is required to utilize these materials. The person in burnout has little energy to spare.

Consequently, progress is slow and can be discouraging if one expects overnight results. Excellent advice therefore for the person recovering from burnout is to settle in for the long haul.

At the Eck Institute, research has been conducted for twenty years to refine the supplementary nutrient programs to speed up recovery from burnout. The programs that have evolved are totally specific for each individual and contain the following:

  • A Metabolic Pak is recommended. There are several of these vitamin-mineral products depending on one's specific metabolic type. The metabolic pack provides basic full spectrum support for each individual metabolic type.

  • Individual minerals and vitamins are given in specified doses based on the mineral tests or other criteria, to precisely balance body chemistry, to antagonize toxic metals and to enhance energy production.

  • A digestive aid is essential to enhance absorption of nutrients.

  • Glandular concentrates are important to balance adrenal, thymus, ovary, kidney and other organ activity.

  • Specialty products are often recommended which contain specific nutrient and herbal combinations to enhance energy and improve liver and other organ activity.

Time for Recovery

Depending on the severity, one to five years may be required for complete recovery from burnout. The time required depends largely upon a person's commitment to getting well. While a morbid preoccupation with health is not desirable, there needs to be a willingness to follow a program of nutrition and lifestyle to allow recovery from burnout.

Recovery time also depends upon how severe the burnout problem is. This unfortunately cannot be known beforehand or by symptoms alone. Some people respond rapidly, while in others the response is slow.

Mental attitudes and emotions may also play an important role in determining response. Some individuals have become so accustomed to living in burnout that psychologically they have accepted their condition. They have essentially given up and resigned themselves to being exhausted or having to push themselves to accomplish anything. This attitude, largely due to severe fatigue, may be difficult to change.


As with any attempt for improvement, commitment is required. Many individuals feel that recovery is not worth the effort. By this attitude they assure their failure.

Monitoring Progress and the Importance of Retests

One of the keys to recovery from burnout is repeat tissue mineral testing. This is necessary because body chemistry will change as improvement occurs. The program must be tailored directly to an individual's body chemistry to keep energy levels high. Retesting is like a mid-course correction that is essential for success.

Without periodic retests, it is often difficult to assess progress. At times, energy levels, or symptoms may not visibly improve. However, a foundation for correction may be taking place at cellular levels. Tissue mineral tests are invaluable for monitoring progress and for reassuring the patient that indeed there is improvement.

The Positive Side of Burnout

What could possibly be positive about burnout? Burnout is often a wake up call. For those who can hear, it can be a signal that one's life is out of balance. It can provide a stimulus to re-examine where and how one lives. Maybe one's attitudes need adjustment, or one has set unrealistic goals. Often one has not loved the body enough and has in fact ignored or mistreated it.

Burnout can be an opportunity for a person to reevaluate priorities in order to bring one's life into greater harmony and happiness.

Copyright © 1989, 1997 - The Eck Institute of Applied Nutrition and Bioenergetics, Ltd.

2225 W. Alice Avenue ¨ Phoenix, AZ  85021 ¨ (602) 995-1580 ¨ FAX (602) 371-8873


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