By Sue Ingebretson
Have you ever heard, “It’s cold and flu season!”? Do you believe this is simply the time of year when everyone gets sick? Perhaps those around you are sick. Or, maybe you’re dealing with a sweaty, fuzzy, queasy feverish feeling? Whatever the case, it seems clear that a compromised immune system and fibromyalgia go hand in hand.
But, how are they connected?
Sniffles, cough and scratchy throats aside, there’s more to this subject than meets the (itchy) eyes.
Cold and Flu Season
Have you ever noticed that the cold and flu “season” coincides with the busiest time of the year? The months surrounding the holidays are known for jam-packed schedules, over-extended resources, and burning the bayberry-scented candle at both ends.
When we get super busy, what goes out the window?
During the past couple of months, how many of you took the extra time needed to treat yourself well and compensate for all the added craziness of the season? I don’t see many hands raised. To be honest, mine isn’t completely raised, either.
I did my best to incorporate rest and relaxation, but dessert indulgences did happen and I let my fitness routine slack off. The excuse that it was COLD outside and I was constantly short on time seemed logical to me.
If asked, what would you say are the top three unhealthy tendencies of the holiday season? You’d probably respond just as many of my clients do. This is what I hear the most…
- “I’ve got an over-scheduled calendar. Too many special events and not enough time. I can’t even get to the gym! If I’m over-committed, how can I possibly make everyone happy? I feel so overwhelmed, I wish I had another month to squeeze in after November and before December.”
- “I’m not eating my regular healthy meals. Between baking, receiving sugary gifts, and the holiday parties, there are sweets everywhere! I nibble a bit here and there and before I know it, I’ve scarfed down a whole plate of cookies. Surely a few treats can’t hurt. If I can’t indulge at this time of year, then when can I?”
- “I haven’t been to bed before midnight in weeks. I’ve still got some shopping to do, wrapping, and cleaning out the spare room before our out-of-town guests to arrive. I’d love to try and catch a few z’s, but with my mind going in all directions, I’d likely stare at the ceiling anyway, so I might as well stay up.”
Do you see a theme here?
These three detrimental subjects persist during the holidays: sugar, stress, and lack of sleep.
Coincidentally (or is it?) these very subjects are the ones to top most immune system destroyer lists.
It makes sense. During extra busy times, we’re more likely to see our workout schedule, healthy eating plan, and our sleep routine skid sideways. We grab quick processed foods, skip the gym, and cram in three or four more tasks between dinner and bedtime. It’s no wonder our immune system is stretched a bit thin.
The bacterial and viral infections that lead to cold and flu are ordinary opportunists. They’re simply waiting for an open door to enter uninvited and then settle in. I actually don’t know anyone who hasn’t been sick over the holidays at some time in their life.
Some of us even think that we can strip our gears in December and make up for it later. I’ve heard clients say that they’ll compensate for their stressed out behaviors with super healthy activities in January and February. Then things will just get back to normal. Whatever that is.
Does this work?
Not really. However, before we point the finger squarely on “the season” or even on our own chronic illness diagnosis, I’d like to share a few thoughts on what, specifically, compromises the immune system.
What’s Really Going On?
Here are the Top 3 Most Common Immunity-Destroyers:
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- Sugar – “Eating any kind of sugar has the potential to reduce your body’s defenses by 75% or more for four to six hours.”(1) So what happens if you’re consuming it all day? Since sugar is present in all cereals, crackers, chips, dairy, juices, and nearly all processed foods – what’s the impact of the cumulative effect?It all adds up to one whopping club to the immune system.
If you think that your sugar indulgences are just once a year, consider how the sugar industry sees it. The candy and sugar sales industries gear up for a smashing year that kicks off with Halloween. Like a sweet sweepstakes (sweet-stakes?) homerun, sales continue briskly through November and December – of course, sliding into home plate on Valentine’s Day.
Then we consume green minty shakes for St. Patrick’s day (with 73 grams of sugar each!) and next comes Easter candy with jelly beans, chocolate eggs, and marshmallow neon-colored bunnies. Americans spend over 2.1 billion dollars on Easter candy.(2)
Seasonal sweet indulgences aren’t just a December thing. The total impact of this growing behavior takes a toll for months on end.
Sugar impacts our immune system, our ability to think and focus, and it’s also incredibly hard on the liver.(3)
- Sleep – According to Eric J. Olson, MD, lack of sleep definitely impacts the immune system in a negative way. Here’s how he explains this phenomenon. “During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, some of which help promote sleep. Certain cytokines need to increase when you have an infection or inflammation, or when you’re under stress. Sleep deprivation may decrease production of these protective cytokines. In addition, infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced during periods when you don’t get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.”(4)Even small changes in your sleep routine can create a negative impact. Keeping a regular, consistent bedtime isn’t just important, it’s a necessity to maintain a strong immune system.
- Stress – Okay, this topic may sound like a total cop out. After all, who isn’t stressed? But, let’s take a look at what happens when we’re over-scheduled and overworked. How do we feel when it seems that there are more things to get done than we have the time or ability to complete?
That’s the very definition of stress.
In the early 80s, immunologists at the University of Ohio studied the relationship between the risk of infection and stress. They found that in their psychoneuroimmunology studies (the relationship between emotions and overall health) they could accurately predict the tendency to become sick based on the stressful circumstances surround the test subject.(5) Many, many more studies have been done since that time and it’s now a common understanding that stress is intrinsically linked to lowered immune system function.
The simple phrase, mind over matter, gains new meaning when this deep causal link is understood.(6)
I hope you have a clearer picture now of the holiday season and how it’s connected to increased likelihood of colds and flu. Yes, there are more social occasions and social interactions at this time of year. We do have more opportunities to come in contact with others who may be sick. But the factors listed above have more to do with our RISK of infection than other factors.
Now, do you happen to see a connection between these holiday-related issues and fibromyalgia? Are you wondering why those of us who have fibromyalgia have a poor or compromised immune systems?
First of all, let’s talk about a compromised immune system and poor digestive health. One main contributor to poor digestive health is sugar. This comes in the form of consuming processed foods (often loaded with added sugar) as well as sugary foods. Poor digestive health also a result of consuming foods linked to sensitivities and allergies. This all adds up to inflammation.
is a hallmark symptom of fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia is also characterized by insomnia and sleep disturbances as well as adrenal issues stemming from chronic stress.
Therefore, the main ingredients in the recipe to destroy your immune system (sugar, sleep, stress) are also the main ingredients linked to symptoms of fibromyalgia. For more in-depth information about the connection between the immune system and fibromyalgia, check out the article, “Is the Fibromyalgia Immune System Compromised?”
What Can We Do?
It’s preferable to keep the immune system strong by avoiding or limiting sugar consumption, getting adequate sleep, and dealing with stress. But our preferences aren’t always what happens in real life.
It’s a good thing the body is so adaptable.
If you’re getting back into the swing of your healthy routines after some weeks (or months) of inconsistencies, there’s good news here. The body can quickly recover from the dietary and behavioral roadblocks we’ve thrown in its way.
We can step up our nutrition routines, get back to the gym, and respect our beneficial bedtimes. That’s great as far as the basics are concerned. But what about a few specifics?
Try out any number of the following practices in order to build up and fortify your immune system. They’re all valuable remedies and I’d like to point out they’re listed in no particular order of importance:
- Relaxation techniques – Deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, walking, and stretching can be amazingly beneficial. Notice that some of these relaxation techniques are great fitness activities as well. I love getting double duty from my efforts!
- Digestive health – A healthy digestion system EQUALS a strong immune system. They’re one in the same. You can’t have a strong immune system without an optimized digestive system. Help yourself along by taking quality probiotics, digestive enzymes, and additional supplements as suggested by your personal health care practitioner. Of course, reduce sugar and processed foods to reduce inflammation and intestinal sluggishness.
- Prayer / Meditation – This is the single most important step when it comes to stress relief. Interestingly, those who incorporate prayer and meditation practices into their lives also find improvements in their memory abilities, as well as in the quality of their sleep.(7)
- Water – Drink plenty of clean, filtered, pure, fresh water. Eliminate and/or reduce sugary and fake sweetened beverages. Proper hydration helps with digestion, toxin removal, pain relief, and even mood.
- Good gut foods – Consume healthy soups, broths, homemade fermented foods, leafy greens and fiber-rich veggies. Help your digestive system do what it does best – absorb the nutrients it needs.
- Laughter – There’s no better stress relief than a great belly laugh. Watch a sitcom, silly pet videos, or simply engage with a funny friend. Getting the giggles might be the best Rx you take today.
- Antioxidants – Colorful, nutrient-dense, fiber-rich veggies can really help your body to fight off infections and keep you full of energy. For more information, check out this article, “Phytonutrients Fighting for Fibromyalgia Recovery.”
- Fitness – There’s no better way to detox the body, elevate mood, and improve digestive function than through body movement. Move within your own range of motion and find a variety of activities that are fun and interesting.
- Essential oils – There are various essential oils and blends that can help with each of the immune system destroyers listed in this article. As a suggestion, try these basic oils – either alone or blended with others:
• Stress – lavender, lemon, orange, or peppermint
• Sleep – vetiver, bergamot, lavender
• Stress/Mood – lavender, lemon, orange, peppermint, cinnamon
- Sunshine – Nature’s sunshine is a great way to create and absorb much-needed vitamin D into our bodies. Practice planned and limited sun exposure daily. Get outside, take a deep breath and enjoy the rays. Just 15 minutes or so can prove restorative.
- Massage – As a great relaxer, a massage can help to tame tension, detoxify the body, and improve overall mood. Find a good local practitioner and be sure to schedule your next appointment before you leave your current one. That’s a great way to keep on track.
- Gratitude – This is a great time of year to begin a gratitude practice. Gratitude and giving thanks is a proven gateway to increasing your happiness factor.(8) Also, to learn more about gratitude and happiness, check out this article on “The Study of Happiness.”
- Contribution – No matter what level of ability or disability you fall into, wanting to feel useful, connected, and of value is a basic human desire. Are you socially connected or do you feel isolated? Finding ways to contribute to your community or the world around you can have far-reaching physical, as well as emotional, benefits.
Are you ready to address the impact that sugar, sleep, and stress have on your body and your immune system? Create a plan to address all three – by taking one small step at a time.
Sue Ingebretson is the Natural Healing Editor for ProHealth.com as well as a frequent contributor to ProHealth’s Fibromyalgia site. She’s an Amazon best-selling author, speaker, and workshop leader. Additionally, Sue is an Integrative Nutrition & Health Coach, a Certified Nutritional Therapist, a Master NLP Practitioner, and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. You can find out more and contact Sue at www.RebuildingWellness.com.
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