Eat better (microbiome and gut health) — the data is unequivocal — our Standard American Diet (SAD) is linked with more mental wellness problems, including burnout. Eating a more “Mediterranean style” diet is both therapeutic for existing mental wellness problems and protective against future ones. This pattern of eating is simple — and delicious — and not any more expensive than the junk food diet that many people are killing themselves with. I have an entire “Mental Fitness Diet” in my new book.
Millions of Americans are returning back to work after being home during the pandemic. While this has been exciting for many, some are feeling burned out by their work. What do you do if you are feeling burned out by your work? How do you reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back”? What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
In this interview series called “Beating Burnout: 5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout,” we are talking to successful business leaders, HR leaders and mental health leaders who can share insights from their experience about how we can “Beat Burnout.”.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Shawn Talbott.
Dr. Shawn Talbott is a Psycho-Nutritionist who studies the link between food and mood. He is the author of 14 books, including 2 textbooks, translated into more than a dozen languages. His work on Mental Fitness has been featured at the Olympic Training Centers, the White House, and the TED stage.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up as the oldest of 3 kids with a hard-working school-bus driving mother and an abusive drug-using/dealing auto-mechanic step-father. I had a great relationship with my mother (who died last year during the height of the COVID pandemic), who always encouraged me to read and explore my curiosity in science and health and sports.
I was very lucky to have great teachers and amazing friends during my high school years. School was my refuge — it was never a question of “if” I would go to college — only a matter of where and how to pay for it. In high school, I was a decent student, a middling athlete, and a compulsively curious explorer — but that turned out to be the perfect blend for my future career.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Early in my career, I was what you might call a “sports nutritionist” with a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry and work with the Olympic Training Centers, US Ski & Snowboard, US Track & Field, NBA Basketball, and other elite performers. It was a lot of fun working with athletes at the very top of their game to help them get even more out of their physical and mental performance — but in 2001, my younger brother (Troy) died of the drug overdose — and it really threw me for a loop.
Troy struggled with drug addiction through his entire adult life — always back and forth between using/clean — and his relapses were always preceded by stress/anxiety. His death got me thinking, that maybe I could use the same “mental fitness” techniques that we used with elite athletes to help “regular people” to reduce their stress, bolster their resilience, and “level up” in all aspects of their lives.
Since then, my work has been 100% focused on the links between how what we DO (lifestyle choices such as nutrition, exercise, and sleep), influence our biochemistry/physiology (stress hormones, neurotransmitters, inflammatory markers); and how that makes us FEEL and perform (psychological metrics such as vigor/burnout, flourishing/languishing, energy/fatigue, acuity/confusion, etc.).
Dozens of research studies and 14 books later, I think I am finally getting a handle on what I now refer to as “Mental Fitness” — and how these techniques can be “mainstreamed” to help millions of people to not just survive burnout but to thrive in the face of modern stressors. All of this comes at a time where the new discipline of Nutritional Psychology is an emerging field of science, and we have entire scientific conferences and academic organizations dedicated to the topic.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
In high school, it was Barbara Leary, who was my coach on the Amesbury High Math Team (I was terrible) and my advisor on the Student Advisory Council (where I was the student representative on the School Committee). “Leary” was the first person to push me out of my comfort zone as a leader.
In college, it was Tom Stefanik, who was my rowing coach on the Marietta Crew Team. Tom led by example and taught me that we all have untapped mental and physical reserves that we never know about until we go looking for them. Without Tom’s influence, I never would have dreamed of competing at the national and international level in rowing, cycling, and triathlon.
In graduate school, it was Priscilla Clarkson (at UMass) and Sue Shapses (at Rutgers), who fueled my curiosity as a researcher and educator by enabling me to pursue my own independent research platform (rather than working on an already-established project).
Each of these individuals pushed me incrementally toward designing a career based on continuously asking, “what could be?” in terms of human health and performance — and I could not imagine where I might be without their influences.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
In my very first job after getting my PhD, I was leading product development for a new “functional foods” project at Nabisco Foods. At that time, Nabisco had dozens of well-known brands, including Oreo cookies, Fig Newtons, Snackwells, LifeSavers, MilkBone dog biscuits, Knox gelatin, and many others. My job was to come up with ideas for “healthy versions” of some of these beloved brands — so we had a lot of crazy ideas about putting nutrients and herbs in the “hole” of a Lifesaver or the “crème” of an Oreo.
After about a month on the job, I got called to a meeting with the President of the “biscuit division” (the largest and most profitable part of the company). He was very nice — told me that he heard good things about how smart and hard-working I was — and complimented me on my creativity and innovative thinking. But then he got very serious and looked me in the eye and said, “One piece of advice, son. Don’t fuck with the Oreos!”
I seriously thought I would pee my pants right there in his office. But then he burst out laughing and said, ‘Ha Ha — I’m just kidding! But actually, I’m not kidding — I can tell you right now that nobody — absolutely nobody — wants their Oreos to be “healthy” — they want them to taste good — end of story.” He wished me good luck in my career and I scurried back to the lab.
I went back to work and happily steered clear of the Oreos for the rest of my time there — but what it taught me was that there is a time and a place for everything. Oreos still aren’t healthy and they never will be, but we’ve seen an explosion in the number of functional foods on the market (foods and supplements that don’t just deliver nutrition but also provide a benefit such as an energy boost or cholesterol reduction or mental focus). Similarly, the “mental fitness” work that I’ve been working on for nearly 20 years used to be considered a little kooky — but now it is becoming mainstream in dedicated scientific disciplines and even a little hip in certain pop-culture circles.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
‘The difference between an Ordeal and an Adventure is your Attitude.”
I’m not sure who said this, but it has been our family motto for many years (I’m married for 27 years with 2 college-aged kids).
I am an avid student of Stoic philosophy — a key tenet of which is to focus on things that are under our control — and not worry about the rest (which are out of our control). This quote sums that up nicely — and reminds us that we don’t (always) get to choose our circumstances, but we always get to choose our responses to those circumstances.
To me, this quote is all about “resilience” — which is the real secret to maintaining psychological vigor and beating burnout.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
My latest book (published Sept 14, 2021) is, “Mental Fitness — Maximizing Mood, Motivation, and Mental Wellness by Optimizing the Brain-Body-Biome” — so I am pretty excited about that. This book is really the culmination of 20 years of work around stress hormones, human performance, microbiome, and the science of the gut-heart-brain-axis. More importantly, we are at an exciting time in history where the science is not just “interesting” but it is ready to be “applied” so it can actually have a benefit in an individual’s every day life.
Imagine if someone struggling with depression or anxiety or burnout could learn that how they feel is not just “in their head” — but also in their gut (2nd brain) and in their heart (3rd brain) — and that they can do something about it to help them feel better today?
Imagine someone fighting daytime fatigue and nighttime restlessness (what we call tired and wired) could finally have abundant energy during the day and amazing sleep at night?
Imagine if someone who has a desire to “do more” in their life and in the world could find a way to “level up” in terms of their focus and creativity and resilience?
Each of these scenarios is an example of overcoming burnout and achieving vigor — aka becoming the best version of yourself.
The reason it’s exciting is not just because any of these represents a “win” for the individual (they feel and perform better) — but they are SO much better that they can’t help but become a better mother/father, spouse/partner, friend/co-worker, etc. They get better individually and “we” get better collectively. What could be more exciting than that?
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
This is where it all starts — simply looking at “what is” and asking “what could be” — what have others tried — what has worked — and what has not (and why) — and is there a better way? One of my favorite authors, Seth Godin, encourages us to “Poke the Box” — so we can learn from our experiments (e.g. what happens when I poke the box here — or there — or there). This trait is oxygen for scientists because it helps us not only start an experiment (because we’re curious about something), but then keeps us moving forward to collect all data (even if it is drudgery) and then help us try again because we often fail to find what we thought we might. One recent example of this was my group’s attempt to find a new “sports performance” ingredient from a tropical fruit extract. We found that the extract did indeed help runners and cyclists to “perform better” on the treadmill and bike — but they also seemed a lot happier (and not just about being faster). Our collective curiosity pushed us to dig deeper until we discovered the influence of nutrition of the “heart-brain-axis” whereby improvements in heart efficiency were not only fostering enhanced physical performance, but also psychological mood state (energy, stress, focus). Without curiosity, we would have had just another sports supplement — but now we have a natural approach to meaningfully improve how people “show up” on a daily basis.
One history’s greatest sages advised, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Master Yoda, of course, was trying to encourage Luke to get off his ass, to stop overthinking and questioning, and get to work. The best learning comes from doing — even when you’re learning how not to do something. It can be very difficult to get out of the “information gathering” or “getting ready” stages and actually into action. The best way to get into action is, in the immortal words of Nike, is to “Just Do It.” In my own case, I had wanted to do a triathlon for years, but always told myself that I needed to train more or become a better swimmer, or whatever excuse to not actually try one. I was already a decent cyclist, so one day I just “did it” — I signed up for a triathlon paid the entry fee (which, for a poor college student was extreme motivation). I had no idea about how to swim in open water — or how to pace my effort — or even how to fuel with energy and hydration — and I finished DFL (dead fucking last). I was mortified — especially when the announcer called out for everyone to hear, “And there is our final competitor crossing the finish line, we can now start the awards ceremony!”
- Persistence (Get Up Again)
Thomas Edison is famous for claiming to have never failed, but rather to have discovered 10,000 ways to not make a lightbulb. This is persistence in action. In my first triathlon, I learned my own version of what not to do — but I also became curious enough about learning the right approach (usually from experienced triathletes) and putting those principles into action — that I came back to win the same race one year later, while setting the course record in the process. Persistence is not only about getting up after being knocked down — but rather about learning from mistakes and trying again with a refreshed approach so you’re not constantly beating your head against the wall (which can lead quickly to physical and mental burnout).
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?
I have a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry (Rutgers) and for the last 20 years, I’ve been studying how to improve the opposite of burnout (psychological vigor).
My first book about stress and burnout (The Cortisol Connection) was published in January 2002 — and my 14th book (Mental Fitness) will be published in Sept 2021. All on my books have focused on natural approaches to beat burnout, enhance vigor, and improve overall mental fitness and physical health.
I am in the process of opening the world’s first “Mental Fitness Center” (3 Waves Wellness) in Plymouth MA — where we will educate people to become “Mental Wellness Coaches” and provide mental wellness retreats to guests who stay with us (think — “bead & breakfast with a mental fitness theme).
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about beating burnout. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define a “Burnout”? Can you explain?
In Nutritional Psychology, we talk about burnout as the lack of vigor — and since vigor is defined as, “a sustained 3-tiered mood state characterized by physical energy, mental acuity, and emotional well-being; burnout can be defined as the opposite of vigor — physical fatigue, mental confusion (brain fog), and emotional exhaustion.
Another ways to define these psychological states is to use the terms from Positive Psychology; flourishing (similar to vigor) — versus languishing (similar to burnout).
Neither burnout nor languishing is quite “depression” or quite “anxiety” — but definitely are not how people want to feel. People with burnout tend to also exhibit “anhedonia” — or lack of enjoyment — even in things that they used to derive pleasure from. Many people with burnout will feel tired during the day and restless at night.
Finally, when we study burnout in athletes, we generally refer to it as “overtraining” (even when it is more typically “under-recovery” versus actually too much training).
How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?
Please see description above about vigor.
Vigor is how people WANT to feel — with abundant day time energy, sharp mental focus, high levels of resilience to “take on” whatever they encounter every day.
In traditional medical systems such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Indian medicine (Ayurveda), and many others, these same concepts of vigor/burnout are described as an abundance or lack of Qi (TCM) or Prana (Ayurveda), or Mana (Polynesian), etc.
Side note — I’ve been studying vigor so long that I have a tattoo on my left calf of the Chinese symbol for Qi (“life force”).
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Some sceptics may argue that burnout is a minor annoyance and we should just “soldier on’’ and “grin and bear it.” Can you please share a few reasons why burnout can have long-term impacts on our individual health, as well as the health and productivity of our society?
As I write about in my latest book, Mental Fitness, our mood state is a direct reflection — and a future predictor — of our overall physical health. Many of the very same underlying “mechanisms” that cause us to feel good/bad psychologically are the very same things that lead to good/bad physical health (e.g. inflammation, immune system function, blood flow, hormone balance, etc.).
It is a mistake to think that how we feel is “just a head thing” — and that we should “get over it” or “push through” how we are feeling. Feelings of burnout can quickly devolve into substance use, sedentary lifestyle, poor food choices, and many other aspects of poor lifestyle choices — which end up leading to problems with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc. — but it all starts with how we feel.
From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?
From a “brain first” perspective, the science is pretty clear that one of the big triggers for burnout is a lack of autonomy. The more a worker is told to perform their job in a very specific rigid non-flexible way, under high time-pressure, the more likely and quickly they are to move toward burnout. The “cure” for that, of course, is to give employees more autonomy in the decisions they can make about where to work (remote), when to work (flex-schedules), and how to get the job done.
From a “whole body” perspective, since the latest science is showing us that the gut (2nd brain) and heart (3rd brain) can be meaningful buffers against stress, it makes sense to also improve gut integrity and heart efficiency. For example, studies have shown us that microbiome balance and gut integrity determines neurotransmitter balance, so our mood (serotonin), motivation (dopamine), relaxation (GABA), etc. are determined in large part by our gut. Likewise, recent studies have also shown that heart efficiency (heart rate variability) is related to our sensations of energy/fatigue, and clarity/confusion. This new paradigm of the Gut-Heart-Brain-Axis suggests that to have the best mood, sharpest mind, strongest body, and most resilient emotional foundation, we need to think in “whole body” terms rather than with “brain only” limitations.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. What can an individual do if they are feeling burned out by work? How does one reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back?” Can you please share your “5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout?”. (Please share a story or an example for each.)
- Eat better (microbiome and gut health) — the data is unequivocal — our Standard American Diet (SAD) is linked with more mental wellness problems, including burnout. Eating a more “Mediterranean style” diet is both therapeutic for existing mental wellness problems and protective against future ones. This pattern of eating is simple — and delicious — and not any more expensive than the junk food diet that many people are killing themselves with. I have an entire “Mental Fitness Diet” in my new book.
- When you can’t eat properly, Supplement with the right probiotics, prebiotics, and phytonutrients to nourish your entire Gut-Heart-Brain-Axis. Our published studies have shown that targeted supplementation that can improve mental well-being, improve energy levels, reduce stress, and bolster resilience tend to also lead to positive changes in eating habits, exercise habits, and sleep habits — people who feel better tend to make better choices.
- (and 4.) Move — take walking meetings Outside when possible (exposure to the outdoors is referred to these days as “green therapy” and can be as effective as prescription antidepressants).
- The data is quite clear that regular physical movement helps to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is like Miracle-Gro for the brain and a significant shield against burnout.
- Get enough Sleep — which for almost everyone is 8-hours per night — and one of the best ways to get enough sleep is to get off email and social media and electronics at least a full hour before bed.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?
Educate themselves about the “whole body” nature of burnout and mental fitness and put these ideas into practice so you can serve as an example. Then you’ll have your own story about the mental fitness and anti-burnout benefits that you can share with your people.
What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
Provide opportunities for employees to do the “5 Things” outlined above…
Help them Eat better (microbiome and gut health) — but insisting that they take a lunch break away from their work and get something healthy to eat — like a salad with lots of brightly colored fruits/veggies, seeds/nuts/beans, and lean protein, and healthy fats. When you can’t eat properly, Supplement with the right probiotics, prebiotics, and phytonutrients to nourish your entire Gut-Heart-Brain-Axis. (our studies have shown that targeted supplementation that can improve mental well-being, improve energy levels, reduce stress, and bolster resilience tend to also lead to positive changes in eating habits, exercise habits, and sleep habits — people who feel better tend to make better choices). I have an entire “Mental Fitness Diet” in my new book.
Help them Move — take walking meetings Outside when possible (exposure to the outdoors is referred to these days as “green therapy” and can be as effective as prescription antidepressants) — encourage stretch breaks from desk work — pay for a gym membership. The data is quite clear that regular physical movement helps to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is like Miracle-Gro for the brain and a significant shield against burnout.
Encourage them to get enough Sleep — which for almost everyone is 8-hours per night — and one of the best ways to encourage that as an employer is to NOT require employees to be connected to email when they are OFF work time (especially on the weekends and after dinner hours).
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
Let’s be mercenary about it — if you want smart, creative, motivated, engaged superstars — then you NEED to support employee mental wellness. It’s better for your bottom line — whether you actually care about the employees or not.
What are a few of the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to reverse burnout in themselves or others? What can they do to avoid those mistakes?
Thinking that burnout is “just in your head” — as I indicated above, it is a “whole body” thing — and clinging to the outdated “brain only” approach, you will be spinning your wheels and not getting very good results.
One of the most common ways that people make this mistake is to think that they can simply “white knuckle” their way out of burnout (or stress or depression, etc.) — but that more often than not just makes the problem even worse.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would challenge people to consider that there can be no “health” without mental health — and that there is no difference between physical health and mental health — they co-exist. That said, I would love to see a movement where people are finally “sick and tired or feeling sick and tired” and start to put their mental fitness as a first priority — the Mental Wellness Revolution!
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are two mega-stars who are both charismatic, good-looking, and seem to everything going for them — and yet they have both been very open and transparent about their personal struggles with mental wellness issues. I would love to discuss over omelets and protein smoothies, any ideas that they may have for reaching a wider audience about elevating “mental fitness” to the same level where people want it as much as they want washboard abs.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!