Don’t let stress make you sick

There never seems to be a shortage of things to stress about, especially with today’s plunging markets and global economic crisis. But stress not only makes us unhappy, but it can make us sick.

Chronic stress has long been associated with increased risk for heart disease and other serious health problems – and now in some parts of the US experts are saying that economic stress may be associated with outbreaks of colds and flu that are occurring earlier than usual.

The reason? Prolonged stress, experts say – such as anxiety over the worsening economy – can weaken the immune system.

“My best guess is that those most impacted by the economic downturn will be at greater risk [of cold and flu],” Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and a leading expert on the relationship between stress and vulnerability to viral infections, told ABC News.

While short-term stressors like a traffic jam or a tight deadline at work cause only small changes in the immune response, chronic stressors such as a bad marriage or ongoing financial strain, can make healthy adults more prone to become ill and catch a cold.

“There’s a fair amount of evidence from epidemiology and viral challenge tests that people exposed to chronic stress are at greater risk of catching a cold,” Cohen said.

Reduce stress for better health

Even if we can’t control the rollercoaster stock market, there are some relatively simple ways we can help to reduce stress, according to the International Stress Management Association.

Smile. Even if you think you don’t have much to smile about, the physical act of smiling releases feel-good hormones, while the stress hormone – cortisol – is reduced. Smiling not only helps you feel calm and in control, but it lowers your blood pressure. Best of all, it’s fast, easy – and free!

Exercise. In addition to its other healthful benefits, exercise is highly effective in reducing stress by releasing endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and feel-good hormones. It also improves blood-flow to the brain, helping you think more clearly.

Get your zzzs. Getting enough sleep is important for maintaining a healthy immune system. Chronic sleep deprivation can also affect your energy and performance at work, which can be a factor in raising stress levels.

Think positive thoughts. Even during difficult times, it’s important to try to maintain an optimistic outlook. Negativity only increases stress, and studies have shown that people with a ‘positive emotional style’ do better at warding off illness. Try to focus on positive steps to find solutions to your problems, whether this means looking for another job or talking to a financial counselor or health professional.

Reach out to others. If you’re feeling anxious don’t suffer in silence. During difficult times, it’s particularly important to reach out to your network of friends, family, co-workers and other people for practical help or a sympathetic ear.

Practice relaxation techniques. Reduce stress with good relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep-breathing exercises and meditation. Or simply give yourself a relaxing evening by turning off the news and your cell phone, and tuning into a good book or your favourite relaxing music.

Eat a healthy diet. A nutritious diet is especially important during stressful times. Cut back on stimulants like caffeine and sugar and depressants like alcohol and nicotine to keep your blood sugar levels constant and help you to avoid mood swings.

Hug a lot. Make sure you get and give your fair share of hugs. Not only does hugging feel good, it has been proven to help reduce stress levels.

If you do get under the weather

At the first sign of a cold, many people look to over-the-counter products to medicate quickly to limit the symptoms, severity and duration of a cold.

But with so many products available, it can be confusing as to which one is best for your particular symptom. Here’s a quick guide:

For sneezing, itchy eyes, and runny noses look for products containing antihistamines. (These can make you drowsy, however, so you may want to look for a non-drowsy formula.)

Decongestants, such as pseudoephedrines, are used to relieve nasal congestion. These come in various forms such as pills or sprays.

For coughs, it’s important to evaluate what kind of cough you have and therefore, what you need. To break up chest congestion and have a more productive cough, choose an expectorant (containing Guaifenesin), which is supposed to thin mucus.

Or if you’re looking to stop a dry, hacking cough, the better choice may be a cough syrup or lozenge that contains a suppressant (Dextromethorphan or DM).

If your cough is coming from a tickle in your throat, a lozenge containing benzocaine and menthol can help to numb your throat.

Acetaminophen, ibuprofen and acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) can all reduce fever and aches associated with colds and flu. (But if you’re taking a cold remedy as well, make sure it doesn’t already contain the same ingredient.)

Suffering from multiple symptoms? There are a number of medications that treat more than one symptom such as Contac® Complete Cough, Cold and Flu, Tylenol ® Cold or Advil® Cold and Sinus. Experts warn, however, not to take medication for symptoms you do not have. Also be sure to check expiration dates before buying any product – and read product labels carefully to avoid an accidental overdose. And, of course, it’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any medication.