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Why you can get sick just as you start your holiday

Saturday, November 25, 2017
Finally, you’re on holiday. The mobile phone is off, there’s no way you can access your email, and you’re ready for some well-deserved R&R with no plans but to sit by the pool sipping cocktails. When you eventually get out of bed, that is.

But why, why, why would you get sick just when, for the first time in months or years, you can finally truly relax? It seems like a cruel irony of life that you’d come down with symptoms of a flu-like illness soon after you start your holidays. After all, relaxation is supposed to boost your immunity, isn’t it?
Well, yes, but there’s been something going on – or more to the point, not happening – over the months or years you’ve been working hard.

We all come into contact with viruses and unhelpful bacteria all day every day. And normally our immune system is constantly on patrol for these invaders. Ideally, as soon as immune patrol cells spot a bug it’s annihilated. Potential infections are wiped out, rogue cells are destroyed, and a peaceful balance prevails.

This situation changes when you’re under stress. In the short term (minutes to hours) your immune system sparks up. This harks back to our stone-age genes, where the immune system helps you recover from injury incurred while escaping from a physical threat. But unless that stressor is resolved soon the reverse happens – your immune system is actually restricted by the ongoing secretion of stress hormones.

Your immunity can still function to a limited degree, but not as effectively as it usually would. That means low level infections can creep in and set up a comfortable home, secure in the knowledge that your immune system hasn’t got the resources to mount an attack.

Release the stress, however, and your immune system will rebound into action: now it has permission to tackle the bugs. But that creates the kinds of symptoms that you get when you have an infection: aching joints, fatigue, rivers of mucus. What you experience is actually the collateral damage of the immune system in action creating symptoms. You haven’t just caught a cold, your body has finally got the resources to fight an infection that’s been there all along.

This is why it’s so important to keep up your stress-busting health practices, like exercise, meditation, time out and the like – even when you’re busy – because who wants to feel sick on their holiday?

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