Stress Leads to Disease

Getting through flu season means first navigating the holiday season well.

If you are a student taking exams this week, a working parent with school-age kids home for two weeks, a grandparent bummed not to be with family this year, or anyone feeling overwhelmed by a holiday shopping list, THIS EMAIL IS FOR YOU.

Holiday stress and flu season coincide for a few reasons. “The controversy that stress causes disease is pretty much over. We’re now teasing out how stress does it,” says Simon A. Rego, PsyD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and associate director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y.

One of the early studies to clearly demonstrate the effects of stress involved test-taking college students. Researchers found that the simple stress of a three-day exam period caused a tremendous drop in students’ immunity. There was a drop in the natural killer cells, which fight tumors and viral infections and students’ bodies virtually stopped producing immunity-boosting gamma interferon. Test-tube stimulations demonstrated only a weak response among infection-fighting T-cells to viruses and bacteria.

Since then, researchers have determined that the strength of the stress is less important than the time-frame of being stressed. Long-term or chronic stress can ravage the immune system. This is especially evident among the elderly during the holidays, when flu season is in full swing. People who are older or already sick are more prone to stress-related immune changes. And mild depression counts as a significant immune-suppressing stressor.

So this holiday season, use this as your excuse to give a gift certificate or just a hand-written card instead of killing yourself to make dozens of perfectly decorated sugar cookies and pound after pound of holiday fudge. Hug your parents and grandparents a lot and make sure they are eating lots of fresh fruit all winter long. (The antioxidant Vitamin C is key to cell repair in the body to fight off infection and injury.) And for those college students finishing up exams this week, they need their sleep. And I’m sure they will appreciate your help with laundry on Sunday!

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