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The Willow Journal

An Herbalist's Guide to Burnout

An Herbalist's Guide to Burnout

Written by Elliott Brinkley, Clinical Herbalist & Owner of Dancing Willow Herbs

As I write this, I am watching the light change as the sun peaks its head over the mesa. Bringing golden hues to the icy blue tones of wind drifted snow chambers and icicles whispering stories of midday warmth. Winter can be a challenging season for me. The holiday season revs me up to such a high caliber that once slowness of January and February come, I am like a wound up doll who fell over, legs moving, obedient to the mechanics with nowhere to go. Slowness can be challenging, especially for those of us who are deeply ingrained people pleasers and perfectionists. I was subconsciously taught that worth is productivity. The story has been, if I am productive, if I am constantly working hard, I have reason to believe that I am enough. This story is not mine alone and I know this, because this narrative is deeply reinforced by our culture… the, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” type of narrative.

The most tragic aspect of this story is that it leaves us feeling shameful of rest, shameful of enjoying, playing and fully living life. And no matter how long you may try to entertain this narrative, at some point it will catch up with you.

So many of the health issues I help clients through, have this belief at the root. They are overworking themselves, which leads to burnout, chronic hormonal conditions, thyroid disorders, gut issues, sleep problems, and more. We could help to balance hormones with herbs and diet, for example, but until the client starts to fully rest, we are doing harm reduction-not true healing.

Over the past few months, I have been tested in this. The toxic mixture of getting sick, and refusing to rest caught me in a sea of ailments, dodging the surf until I realized all I needed to do was relax and let the wave bring me to shore. During this time, I have been working with a few plants, formulas & practices to help break my subconscious patterns and allow myself the permission to cultivate deep rest and an innate knowing that I am enough. I have provided my favorite categories of plants for learning to replenish our reserves, a few corresponding formulas and practices so that you, too, can learn how to embody the rest that you innately deserve.


So, how do we really rest?

In this technological age, it seems like we all forgot how to truly rest. I define rest as an activity or lack of activity, which allows us to feel replenished and more grounded. For me, this looks like taking a bath, reading a book, getting in bed early, stretching, going for a walk, spending quality time with loved ones, journaling, making a cup of tea, meditating and watering my plants. It took me a while to refine this list, and has been a process of creating boundaries around the activities that have disguised themselves as “restful” but are ultimately depleting. For me, these are things like social media and television, which when I am out of balance become a way that I attempt to soothe myself- to no deep resolve. I have decided that anything that ultimately makes me feel more tired and distant from my authenticity either has strict boundaries and parameters around it, or I let go of entirely.

The beautiful thing is that once you create boundaries around the activities that don’t serve you, there is more space to engage in the activities that do.

Create your list of activities or non-activities that fill your cup in the notes app on your phone or write it down on a piece of paper that you place in an area you will see often. Refer to this list anytime you are feeling like you need to decompress, are on edge, exhausted or burnt out.


Spiritual Heart Herbs

Spiritual Heart herbs are plants that have an affinity for bringing us into our authenticity, our purpose, and our ability act from alignment with our heart. Some of my best botanical relationships are in this category, and maybe because of their affinity with the heart, they allow me to love them even more!

These herbs not only help us ground into the magic and softness of the heart, but they are excellent allies for creating boundaries. For those of us prone to burn out, the tendency is usually to over-give and over-do. Spiritual Heart herbs can help us cultivate and instill healthy boundaries around the things that are draining us, or are not aligned with our authenticity.

These herbs allow us to deeply relax and soften, knowing that we are enough as we are.

Spiritual Heart herbs allow us to acknowledge ourselves with gentleness, and see our worthiness at the forefront.

Some examples of Spiritual Heart herbs:

Our blend of spiritual heart herbs, Rooted Heart Elixir, has been a pivotal aspect of my daily routine moving through this challenging time. Especially during the day, Rooted Heart allows me to sink into myself and walk in my authentic truth. As an empathic person, this formula helps me create emotional boundaries while maintaining an open heart. In the evening, it helps me wash away the day and settle into my inner sanctum. This is an especially supportive blend for those who are experiencing turmoil, grief or loss.

It is a blend of Rose, Hawthorn & Reishi with honey. It tastes delicious, and is like a hug for your heart.

Purchase Rooted Heart Elixir here!


Replenishing Kidney Qi Tonics

From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, burnout is a depletion of Kidney Qi. Ultimately, behaviors like burning the candle from both ends, running on stress hormones, drinking too much caffeine/alcohol, spending too much time on screens and not properly resting or nourishing yourself depletes Kidney Qi reserves. Kidney Qi is like our constitutional energy bank that governs aging, reproductive health and much more.

Herbs and practices that support and nourish Kidney Qi can be a helpful for replenishing energy reserves and setting us up for deep rest. These herbs all have a quality of being nourishing, somewhat sweet and earthy. Practices for supporting Kidney Qi involve spending time in nature, forest bathing, gentle walks, staying warm (especially lower back & feet), warm baths, and eating warm nourishing foods. 

Some examples of Kidney Qi tonics:

  • Goji berries
  • Codonopsis
  • Astragalus
  • Wild yam
  • Fo-Ti
  • Licorice
  • Milky Oats

Our Reishi Vitality formula could be supportive for replenishing kidney Qi and innate vitality. It has two of my favorite herbs for this purpose, Codonopsis & Astragalus. These herbs feel deeply nourishing to the entire body- the immune system, the reproductive system, the nervous system. They are sweet, nourishing and soothing in the way that they provide the body with warmth and strength. 

You can purchase Reishi Vitality here!


Calming Adaptogens

Adaptogens can often also be kidney Qi tonics and have a similar energetic quality of being sweet, grounding and nourishing.

Especially in the context of burnout, I recommend avoiding stimulating adaptogens. Herbs like ginseng, rhodiola, or eleuthero, are often used to combat fatigue but they are also stimulating. As my teacher, herbalist Paul Bergner would say, “Fatigue is not an adaptogen deficiency, it is a rest deficiency.” Using stimulating adaptogens to mask symptoms of burnout may lead to more depletion.

Instead, I prefer to lean on calming adaptogens which soothe & regulate the nervous system in a way that allows us to access deeper rest. These herbs help to regulate the HPA (hypothalamus pituitary adrenal) axis. The HPA axis is a hormonal system that signals the release of cortisol from the adrenals. While people throw around the term adrenal fatigue loosely, the term can be misleading. The adrenals don’t necessarily get “fatigued”, with the exception being in the case of the autoimmune condition Addison’s disease. For most people, the adrenals get dysregulated, which is the real issue behind adrenal fatigue symptoms.

Adrenal dysregulation occurs when chronically elevated cortisol is in circulation. This puts a huge burden on the body, which then prompts the hypothalamic pituitary to down regulate and stop giving the adrenals the proper signal to produce cortisol. However, cortisol regulates our wake response, energy and alertness. This is why, people with burnout may feel exhausted all day and especially first thing in the morning, but then get a burst of energy right before bed in a way that is “tired and wired”.

Calming adaptogens, especially when taken on a regular basis, help to nourish the nervous system. They are great when taken in the evening to help prevent inopportune cortisol spikes, in order for you to achieve deeper rest.

Some examples of calming adaptogens:

My favorite adaptogenic formula that we carry is our Adaptogenic Honey Paste. The traditional way to consume many of these adaptogenic herbs, such as Shatavari & Ashwagandha, has been as a powder. I love honey pastes because you get to consume the whole plant in a way that is delicious and versatile. I add the honey paste to warm milk or nut milk and blend it up to make an evening calming adaptogenic latte! 

You can purchase Adaptogenic Honey Paste here!


Nervine herbs are different than any of the above categories in the way that they can immediately shift your nervous system from fight or flight to rest and digest. Nervines are great for acute anxiety, restlessness, stress, insomnia and more. I love to lean on nervines in the evening to help turn off my mind, and ease me into a restful state.

Nervines are our closest allies for immediately deepening the body’s ability to rest.

At the core of it all, being in a restful nervous system state- one that is relaxed, receptive and at ease- is the only place where true healing can occur. Nervines assist us in getting to that place, and when taken on a regular basis can help develop and train our bodies to go there more frequently and easily.

There are two categories of nervines: sedative nervines & hynotic nervines. Sedative nervines are calming, soothing, may be relaxing to your muscles, quiet anxiety and stress but aren’t going to make you overly sleepy. Hypnotic nervines are the herbs reserved for just before bed-time. These can make you drowsy, and should be avoided during the day.

Sedative nervines:

Is it a coincidence that during this day and age our very best selling formula is a blend of these nervines? I think not... 

Peaceful Heart is a blend of Skullcap, Motherwort and Milky Oats that help soothe the heart during acute panic/anxiety, calm racing thoughts and replenish a depleted nervous system. It is great to have on hand for moments of elevated stress, to unwind during the evening and even if you wake up in the middle of the night with racing thoughts. 

You can purchase Peaceful Heart here!

Hypnotic nervines:

Sleep Deep is our blend of hypnotic nervines that promote restful deep sleep. This is designed to be taken right before bed to help you drift into sleep quicker, so that you can wake up feeling more rested.  

You can purchase Sleep Deep here!


Feeling Replenished

While these herbs are all highly supportive, they are like our cheerleaders- encouraging us to advocate for ourselves, and set the boundaries necessary to combat burnout. Most of the time, herbs will not catalyze deep replenishment on their own. They have to be paired with lifestyle changes, and an effort to unravel underlying limiting beliefs that are keeping us in over-giving, overworking patterns. I invite you to examine where you may have picked up these beliefs, thank them for the purpose they have served, and then examine what your life would be like without them. Incorporate more of the things that lift you up, make you feel nourished and replenish not only your energy reserves, but the inner spark that only you are meant to share with this world.

I hope that you feel resourced in giving yourself permission to put your needs first and find some deep rest at the tail end of this winter season. If you need me, I will probably be cuddled up on the couch with a good book and a warm cup of tea!