why do I get sick so easily?
January 29, 2010 7:15 PM   Subscribe

Is there something wrong with my immune system? I'm generally a healthy person, I eat well and exercise. But if there's ever a case where I have to briefly expose myself to some additional stress, I'm almost guaranteed to come down with a flu-like illness that puts me out for 3 or 4 days.

I try to avoid stress in life, but it's not possible to do so at all times. It's frustrating to have just one small incident trigger getting sick. Because of this problem, I'm sick often, at least once a month.

Here's an example: I have been sleeping normally for an entire month, but last night I had to make an exception, working until 4am and waking up at 8am. So today, I'm sick and will be so for 2-3 more days.

Some other examples of things that will trigger getting sick: Drinking slightly more than what will get me buzzed in one night, non-trivial work/family incidents that makes me upset/tense, being slightly underdressed in the cold for 15 minutes.

I'm wondering if there are any supplements I can take or other things that I can do to keep this from happening. I already eat very well (lots of fruits/veggies/nuts/whole grains/fish), take a multivitamin, and have a regular exercise routine (mostly aerobic).

I can't see a doctor right now, I have no health insurance and can't afford to pay cash. But I've brought this up before with doctors and they offered no advice.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Try taking vitamin C and zinc supplements on days that you feel sick. It might just be a placebo effect, but I really think that taking those helps me get well faster when I have a cold.

You might also want to try to find ways to reduce stress, such as practicing yoga or meditation.
posted by Lobster Garden at 7:22 PM on January 29, 2010

Have you considered that getting sick has become a coping mechanism for you? That you get sick to avoid the consequences of stress? I'm not saying that you're not getting legitimately sick. Cold/flu like symptoms are a result of a triggered immune system. Maybe your immune system is activating as a kind of learned response? I don't know how one would stop such a thing from happening, if it is indeed happening.

Do you take a B12 or stress complex as a part of your vitamin regimen? It might help.

Also, stop trying to avoid stress. Teach yourself to deal with stress better by embracing it more often?
posted by dchrssyr at 7:26 PM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

Something that probably won't hurt and might help would be an adaptogenic herb of some kind. Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) is one that comes up a lot - astragalus is another. I take both of these herbs regularly during the winter, and during times of sustained heightened stress. It's easy to find them in various herbal tea formulations. My personal favorite way to take them is by adding them to a long-simmering soup (I eat a lot of soup in winter) - neither has a strong taste. For what it's worth, I work very closely with lots of young kids (i.e. disease vectors) and the general public, and haven't caught a single virus yet this year, despite putting stress on my body and exposing it to lots of germs.

Read up on adaptogens. There are lots of them out there, some may be easier for you to get ahold of than others. They're usually pretty inexpensive, benign, and might help. Keep in mind that most are intended to work over time, so they're not a quick fix.
posted by Knicke at 7:39 PM on January 29, 2010

It would be helpful if you could email a mod to clarify what symptoms of sickness you experience specifically. I know "flu-like" would seem descriptive, but that word gets interpreted variously as "seasonal influenza", "common cold or whatever else is flu-ish", or "stomach flu", all of which have distinctive symptoms. Since none of the three manifest symptoms within hours, strengthening your immune system probably isn't going to be enough to solve your problem. But knowing a bit more about what yuck you're experiencing might lend more better insights.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 8:16 PM on January 29, 2010

I had the same problem. Hurray for swine flu! I wash and disinfect my hands much more than I used to. I wash my hands as soon as I come home. I make an effort to touch my nose and eyes less. I also do not eat and touch multi-user computers at the same time (or at least with the same hand). I'm currently in a medium-term high stress situation and I'm fit as a fiddle.
posted by Pertz at 8:43 PM on January 29, 2010

Do you eat differently on stressful days? I found I had a sensitivity to food additives present in the convenient food I used to eat at work. It presented like hay fever. Now that I'm eating healthy food, I rarely have the sniffles or watery eyes, or sneezing fits. And if I do, it's very short term and trivial to manage with standard anti-histamine medication.
posted by krisjohn at 3:37 AM on January 30, 2010

Wash your hands more, perhaps?

A friend recommended a drop of oregano oil a day to keep from getting sick. Seems to be working so far.
posted by backwards guitar at 6:09 AM on January 30, 2010

I'm inclined to agree with dchrssyr and reiterate nakedcodemokey's point that most pathogens will take more than hours to manifest symptoms. It is possible that you have a chronic, asymptomatic infection hanging out in (e.g.) your sinuses which opportunistically goes on the attack when you are stressed, but that is a bit of a reach.

If this is a psychogenic condition as suggested, it is possible that simply assuming it is has the potential to ameliorate it. Pertz's regime is the most pragmatic of the recommendations above and it certainly can't hurt (but don't overdo it: dried, cracked skin of your hands is a fabulous vector for pathogen entry).
posted by fydfyd at 6:33 AM on January 30, 2010

Perhaps it is worth noting that the common causal agents of cold and flu have incubation periods of upto 5 days from onset of symptoms and up to 7 days to peak symptoms. So in the cases you quote you had probably already contracted the virus prior to the period of stress.

There is some evidence that sleep deprived individuals, when exposed to rhinovirus are more likely to catch a cold than well slept indivduals (link). So there is benefit to be had to try and get good sleep.

There is a strong meme in most cultures about 'immune weakness' but no such condition has been identified on scientific studies. There are well known syndromes of reduce immune competence and colds and flus are not generally the symptoms of that.

Many herbal traditions and homeopathy believe in the power of substances to increase 'immune potency'. But then they believe in stuff like memory of water too so I wouldnt waste my time on those. There is no good quality evidence that shows that taking any herbs or supplements will make you more immune to colds or flus.

The things that may have contributed to your recent experience are lack of sleep and spending more time indoors and for these periods to have occured during the annual flu season.

As someone else pointed out washing hands is probably the most effective means of cutting down future episodes.
posted by london302 at 6:48 AM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a list of things to do here. One of the things they mention is what I use; saline nasal sprays. During cold outbreaks I make sure to keep up with saline mists right after I return from going out. Inhale several times for each nostril, leave it in for a couple of minutes, then use another mister full of distilled water (and a tissue) to rinse.

It may be coincidence, but the last couple of years I've been doing this the number and duration of my colds has gone down. The Mayo Clinic also recommends it.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:09 AM on January 30, 2010

If you really feel like you are getting sick alot you could go to the doctor and request them to do some blood work. I have a low white blood count which contributes to a lower immune system and could possibly a cause for concern (other underlying health condition). The doctor can look into underlying causes. Otherwise, you could at least rule out a long term health condition and maybe look towards other causes for continued illness.
posted by aetg at 10:31 AM on January 30, 2010

What do you mean when you say flu like - stomach issues? head ache? congestion? bleeding from the eyes?

Krisjohn's comment seems like a strong possibility to me - is there some sort of handy faux food you wolf down when the going gets tough and the tough don't have time for proper meal. It could be that you've developed an allergy to something.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:25 AM on January 30, 2010

So, I'm not a doctor, psychologist, or anything other than a person on the internet. And since you asked this anonymously you can't respond to anything, and this might be a wholly unfair characterization of your problem.

I really think it's all in your head. Psychogenic.

You may even have real symptoms that you could gather empirical evidence on, like a fever, and it could still be psychogenic. This does not mean your illness is not real, it just means it's genesis is in your mind, not in biology. The mind has amazing powers over the body. In a false pregnancy (pseudocyesis), women who are convinced they are pregnant will develop distended abdomens, stop menstruating, and start lactating.

I see a similarity with you. You do something, and you think it will make you sick. Then magically the next morning you are sick. This doesn't seem like it would be biologically possible with the incubation period of most viruses, when you would be exposed to germs, how your immune system works. I would say that the reason most doctors give you the shrug off is because they also think it's psychosomatic.

Which, again, saying it's "all in your head" does not mean it isn't real. This is a real problem for you. Start thinking about how stress does not make you sick, viruses and bacteria do. The next time you are facing an all-nighter, don't focus on how you will be sick the next day, be confident that because you keep good hygiene, eat well and exercise, haven't been around sick people, etc, the only physical consequence is that you'll be tired next day.

Also, they do make medicine for psychosomatic symptoms, called placebos or homeopathic medicine. They are pills containing no active ingredient other than the belief that they will make you well. Maybe try the same thing with some vitamins so you do get some real benefit. Just pick a letter and pop them when you deal with your next big stressor.

I really don't intend any snark, and psychogenic illnesses are common, not anything to be ashamed of. I think they're quite fascinating. Here's a case that made news recently. I responded to this question in the hopes of giving you something to try to resolve your symptoms. No offense intended.
posted by fontophilic at 5:01 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

For me, I found that accepting there would be some illness and planning around that (and taking preventative measures--nutritious food, plenty of fluids, ibuprofen), turned it from major pain to minor short term annoyance.
posted by eleanna at 10:54 PM on January 30, 2010

Just as an add on. I would not get too hung up upon laboratory tests. Low white count or leucopenia rarely presents as uncomplicated coughs and colds. In fact, the commonest CAUSE of leucopenia is viral diseases.
posted by london302 at 3:20 AM on January 31, 2010

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