A few weeks ago, I got a cold for the fourth time this year. So I did what any normal person would do, I started googling, “Why am I always sick?” and taking everything I found therein as gospel.
Not quite, but I read lots of expert opinions, health bloggers, and a few studies. Then I assessed my daily routine (the things I was eating, the supplements I was taking, how often I was exercising, and my general stress level with regards to work and my personal life), and came to a simple conclusion: my stress had increased and I responded to this change by doing really only one thing: drinking more coffee.
Beginning a couple of months ago, stress at work was particularly high. There were a lot more projects to manage, and I’d had some staffing changes that impacted those projects. (My office’s open plan–there are about 500 of us on two floors–also probably had something to do with how often I was getting sick).
But for so many years in my early 20s, even in the midst of untreated celiac disease, I didn’t get colds often and I never got the flu. This after a childhood full of colds, flus and two spells of mono. I wanted to get back to that healthy young lady place. So I spent a week or two tweaking my routine, and here’s what I learned along the way:
Even short-term stress can weaken your immune system. It’s not all that normal to just go, go, go, especially if pressure at work or at home has recently increased. You may think you’ve adapted to the increased pressure, as I had, because our bodies, with the help of our adrenal system, are evolutionarily conditioned to adapt to stress. But as this 2004 study suggests, even short-term stressors (such as an academic exam) can cause an increase in adrenal production, chiefly cortisol, which can suppress your immune system. Your body likely adapts to more stress by producing more cortisol and other corticosteroids, which over time could lead to increased inflammation in the body.
Sleep = sending your body to the cellular repair shop. It needs those repairs nightly. Your sleep quality or sleep amount may be affected by your stress levels. For those who work during the day and sleep when the sun is down, our cortisol levels naturally wane as the day goes on, preparing us for sleep. But if you’re stressed, those levels might not go down as gracefully as they’re supposed to. You may have trouble sleeping, which means the quality of repairs your body is doing at night is also compromised (as I mention in this post about how to get better quality sleep, most people need 4 to 6 90-minute cycles per night for optimal health). Sure enough, I had gotten less sleep and had some insomnia in the days before I got my last cold.
Caffeine compromises sleep and may increase cortisol levels. During these busy weeks, I found myself reaching for a second espresso, then a third, then a fourth, every afternoon. I’d cut myself off around 3pm or 4pm, which meant when I was going to sleep around 10:30pm, my body was still full of caffeine. My tolerance to the stuff was increasing in tandem with my increased stress levels. I wasn’t feeling stimulated by one or two cups anymore. My body was tired and the simplest solution was to just drink more caffeine.
You need to adapt your routine to your stress levels. Because the normal tricks probably won’t do. Instead of consuming more caffeine, which probably fucked up my sleep and increased my anxiety (some people are predisposed to this effect from caffeine; I am definitely one of them), I should have been focusing on upping my intake of quality nutrients that would help my body repair itself and stay strong in the face of stress and an apparently weakened immune system: leafy greens, blueberries, adaptogens like chaga and reishi mushrooms, and B vitamins, which I take as a supplement, due to my low consumption of food from animal sources. Those are some of my go-to immunity boosters, anyway. What are yours?
Be proactive about the stress so it doesn’t make you sick, or become chronic. Clearly I didn’t do this, this time around. I think during these challenging weeks I remained in perpetual “fight” mode. My adrenal system was telling me to just keep going. There was no binge-watching of TV, no meditation, not enough quality time with friends and family, and not enough exercise. I love to run and for me, it clears my head as well as meditation does, but I only ran two or three times those weeks, possibly because I already felt so amped up that I didn’t think I needed it.
As hard as it can be to snap out of “fight” mode and go do something silly, sedentary, or mindless, I’ve found it to be one of the best ways to nip stress in the bud. Keep a detailed calendar or bullet journal of how you’re spending your time so you can hold yourself accountable to having more fun!
So yeah, keep a journal. I love my slightly modified version of a bullet journal, which I started at the beginning of this year. I use a page a day of a small Moleskin notebook to write down whether I exercised, how it felt, what I ate, a brief summary of what happened at work and at home, what I read, watched, and listened to, a rough guess of how much sleep I got the night before, what I was grateful for that day, and any odds and ends that seem worth noting.
When I got sick again (as noted by “SICK AGAIN!!!!” in an angry scrawl), I was able to look back at the preceding days and seen how my lack of sleep, events at work, and guzzling of low-quality office kitchen espresso had probably contributed to acquiring yet another common cold.
Here’s hoping these tips help you be gentle with your adrenal system, as I’m learning to be with mine. What did I miss? What’s worked for you in the face of stress and illness? Share in the comments!