Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Leisure sickness

During law school, I would get sick almost immediately after exams. It was as if the second I stopped being busy, the germs would take hold, and I'd be incapacitated for a couple of days. And not just the sniffles. Really honest-to-god running-a-fever can't-get-out-of-bed non-functioning sick.

At the beginning, my mother was frustrated by this phenomenon. Then she started thinking that it was funny. She'd make comments like, "Well, I'd plan on doing {insert activity here}, but you're going to be sick anyway. . . ."

When I started working, it was like that whenever I had a major deadline or a trial -- as soon as it was over, I'd be sick. And right now, I'm about 98% sure that it'll happen after my big trial this month.

So, last week, in The Washington Post, they had a whole article on the phenomenon of leisure sickness. Apparently, I'm not the only one who gets sick the second she relaxes.

Ad Vingerhoets, an associate professor of clinical health psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, calls it "leisure sickness." Just when you take a break from your busy schedule to enjoy a little relaxation, your leisure time becomes anything but -- full of aches and pains, cold- and flulike symptoms and other health complaints.


The underlying cause of the problem, according to Vingerhoets, appears to have a lot to do with stress.


But Esther Sternberg, a researcher of neuroendocrine immunology at the National Institutes of Health, disagrees. Sternberg, the author of "The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions," calls leisure sickness a real condition, tied to the release of hormones under stress and their interaction with the nervous and immune systems.

In times of stress, the body's adrenal glands release adrenaline, which makes the heart beat faster and causes you to feel sweaty and anxious. Adrenaline gives a boost to the immune system, the body's defense against infection, Sternberg said. But while adrenaline is pumping, so is cortisol -- a potent anti-inflammatory hormone also released by the adrenal glands.

"The reason [cortisol] works as an anti-inflammatory is because it's turning off the immune cells," Sternberg said. ". . . You're no longer able to effectively fight infection."

The two hormones are timed differently, with adrenaline starting up and shutting down within milliseconds, much faster than cortisol, which takes five to 10 minutes.

"What happens when you stop doing what it is you were doing that stressed you is that the adrenaline shuts off first," Sternberg said. "You are left with this cortisol floating around. And if at that moment someone coughs in your face, you get sick."

I feel vindicated. Take that, Mom!


Paige Jennifer said...

So what you're saying is people who make a living out of picking coconuts never get sick...sign me up!

dara said...

Heh. Not sure about that, though. What I think this really means is that, while the idea of vacation is pleasant, inevitably, stress will ruin it one way or another.