Ahh, the holiday season. For some it’s the most wonderful time of year—nice chilly mornings filled with fresh air, hot chocolate by the fire and delectable holiday treats. If for you, you think of Kleenex, the chills and canned chicken soup, well then this article is for you. Ever wonder why there is a season for sickness? What makes one season different than another? Do bugs migrate away and then return for different seasons? A lot of people get sick around the holidays or immediately following. Often this is considered coincidental and passed off as something that “just happens,” while many have no idea what they can do to avoid getting sick next year. There are many patterns that affect your sickness susceptibility and they all lead to one crucial issue, stress.
Stress as a whole is always viewed as a really bad thing which isn’t entirely the case. I think the main issue is articles and research refers to stress, as well… just “stress”. There is no differentiation between the level and length of stress, which is what is important. Stress alone can be stimulating, causing us to be more alert, energizing us to finish a project for a deadline or inspiring creative thoughts. However, if you allow stress to remain elevated long term you could be looking at complete disassembly of the immune system, mood disorders and neuronal death.
We have all experienced stress at some point in time. It’s normal and actually healthy to experience stress every once in a while. Acute stress can trigger new neurons and improve cognition. Minor microbial stress (infections) fortifies our immune system, making it stronger and better capable of protecting us.
To discuss chronic stress we must define it. Chronic or sustained stress is the bad stress. Sustained stress is what is quietly wreaking havoc on your health. Stress releases many chemicals in your body called glucocorticoids. One of the most well known of these hormones is cortisol. Cortisol and its entire effective role on the immune system is extremely complex, yet the basic mechanism is simple. Our immune system is comprised of proteins, fats and chemicals that relay signals and amount defenses to foreign invaders to keep us healthy. The immune system recognizes non-self harmful agents via dendritic cells also know as presenting cells. Think of these cells as messengers. They flag the immune system down and let it know something is not right. The immune system then creates proteins to amount a proper response. You may have heard your doctor talk about T and B cells and antibodies; this is what we are talking about here. Unfortunately, this is not fool proof; with the amount of potential harmful agents your body comes in contact with can make it vulnerable to dysfunction via cortisol. In animal models we have seen chronic cortisol release lead to an over 70% decrease in certain immune proteins and messengers. Imagine your car working only 30% of the time. Would you be able to rely on it daily to get to work? It is clear to see the negative impact these stress hormones can have, but that is not the entire picture.
Cortisol is released daily reaching its peak anywhere from 30-60 minutes after waking. It is necessary for many important functions and you wouldn’t be living without it, but its elevated and/or sustained release causes issues. Cortisol abundance can happen from toxins, lack of sleep, psychosocial, financial stress, emotional stress, infectious stress and stress from a poor diet. What happens when we are stressed? Many reach for their favorite sugar pastry or those single serving Ben & Jerry’s pints. High sugar consumption over a short period of time decreases another part of your immune system; neutrophils. Neutrophils’ main job is to engulf bacteria (kind of like Pac-Man) and sugar consumption lowers their ability to do so. This decrease in neutrophil activity can last up to 5 hours after you have finished eating! So let’s imagine you’re running late in the morning. You heat up a waffle with syrup, grab your coffee with sugar and creamer, and dash out the door. A few hours later you are sitting down to eat your sandwich with potato chips and a soda. Later that night its pasta or pizza and maybe some ice cream before bed. You have just introduced sugar, sugar and then more sugar. Layer the stress and we have the perfect recipe for immune disaster.
Want to know if you have poor adaptation to your environment? One easy way to recognize this problem is if your attendance at the physician’s office elevates your otherwise normal blood pressure. This is often diminished as “white coat hypertension” and a normal response to being at the doctor’s office, but it’s not normal. This elevation in BP is a sign that you handle stress poorly. It needs to be addressed because your blood pressure is rising and falling throughout the day even with small amounts of stress.
It is worthy of note that as we age, we naturally will have a decrease in the cells that make up our immune cells. These cells are called hematopoietic stem cells and are derived from bone marrow. Up to 50% of our bone marrow can be replaced by fat as we age so it becomes imperative that our diets and lifestyle remain on point as we get older. Investigators have also recently shown that the release of mature cells from the bone marrow is responsive to circadian cycles and regulated by the sympathetic nervous system. What does this mean? Proper sleeping patterns are paramount to be able to create a good, strong immune response when necessary.
What if you didn’t want to change what you eat and can’t lower your stress…can you just quarantine yourself and use hand sanitizer to keep safe? No. Remember you do not need to “catch” something from someone to become sick. We have a pool of bad microbes and viruses in us from time past and even birth. In fact, we are only 10% human and the rest of our physiology is made up of beneficial and harmful microbes. You have to make positive changes in your lifestyle to stay healthy.
High stress and sugary foods reduce our immune system—when do we have those two in combination? The holidays! You can now start to put the pieces of the puzzle together and understand that your sickness is not an inevitably part of the season. Your susceptibility to sickness can be mitigated by finding stress relieving activities, getting good deep sleep and making sure your lifestyle choices are not dictated by the temptations of sugary beverages and foods. Be happy, eat well and stay healthy.