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In this holiday season, many of you will be spending a great amount of time preparing for some sort of celebration. Some of you will celebrate almost each and every day. There will be family and work parties, shopping sprees and cooking festivals. An entire year's worth of cheer and good will is going to be packed into the next three or four weeks. Most of you will become run down, frazzled, frustrated, disappointed, anxiety ridden, depressed, over indulgent and sleep deprived. The holiday season is both economically and emotionally expensive each and every year. If we ranked it on a stress meter, zero being not stressful at all and ten being the most stressful, the meter reading during this part of the year would read eleven, which means it will be off the scale stressful.
I remember one of my recent visits to a popular church to hear the well known pastor give a sermon about the holiday season. He suggested that we all take it easy and not try to do so much between Thanksgiving and New Years Day. On the other hand, he asked for volunteers to work on a number of projects for the church, fill the food pantry and step up their monetary donations before the year's end. It was a bit hypocritical to add more stress to members of his congregation in a time when he had previously advised them to chill out. No matter how you slice it, increased psychosocial stress is a going to happen at this time of year.
Everyone knows that being over stressed increases your chances of catching a cold. The most common virus that takes advantage of your stressed body is the rhinovirus. There are two modes of transmission: via aerosols of respiratory droplets and from contaminated surfaces, including direct person-to-person contact. That hug and kiss under the mistletoe could be quite dangerous under certain circumstances.
Human rhinoviruses occur worldwide so you cannot escape it by going to Disney World for Christmas or New York for New Years. Rhinoviruses are the primary cause of the common colds. Symptoms include sore throat, runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing and cough; sometimes accompanied by muscle aches, fatigue, malaise, headache, muscle weakness, or loss of appetite. Fever and extreme exhaustion are not common and their presence would suggest the flu. A this time of the year, people tend to spend more time indoors, possibly increasing the risk of viral transmission. Lower ambient temperatures may also be a factor given that human rhinoviruses preferentially replicate at 32°C (89°F) as opposed to 37°C (98°F). These viruses thrive in colder weather.
How much more likely is someone to catch a cold during the Winter holiday season? The most stressed out people are about three times more likely of succumbing to a cold, especially if their psychosocial stress lasts for more than a month long. All of you preseason shoppers and meal planners take note.
Another disturbing feature of stress during the holiday season is reactivation of latent viruses. These viruses are a group of DNA viruses that infect your cells and for some reason, hibernate or go inactive. A good number of you are familiar with some of the viruses in the Herpes viral family, most notably Chicken Pox, Epstein-Barr and genital and oral herpes. These viruses are clever. They will infect cells, replicate and cause all sorts of commotion in the immune system. Just as our cellular and humoral immune functions are revved up and ready to destroy these intracellular menaces, they lyse the cells they initially infected, pour into the blood stream and find new cells in which to safely harbor. Once they enter the new uninfected cells, they go dormant.
Over the past few years, scientists have discovered how these DNA viruses reactivate. They wait for stress to emerge which causes an elevation in glucocorticoids. All Herpes viruses contains DNA which has a stretch of nucleic acids that is sensitive to elevated glucocorticoid signals. When glucocorticoid levels are up, the DNA sensor activates the gene involved in emerging from latency. The sensor DNA has been identified on Epstein-Barr, Herpes 1 and Herpes 2, and varicella-zoster (Chicken Pox). I suspect it is also on the DNA of Cytomegalovirus as well as HHV-6.
These viruses are a bit more crafty and dastardly. Once they infect your nervous system, they can stimulate your hypothalamus to secrete CRH which causes the release of ACTH from the pituitary. Once ACTH elevates in the circulation, glucocorticoid levels rise. Not only does the elevated glucocorticoid levels activate the viruses, glucocorticoids down regulate our immune function.
When people are infected with Epstein-Barr or other viruses in the Herpes virus class, their CRH can elevate which causes a heightened sensitivity to environmental stimuli. Infected people can even lose their ability to get a good night's sleep. One major factor making some people even more susceptible to psychosocial stress of the holiday season. People think there is such a thing as mind over matter. Poppycock! These are shrewd viruses and humans are the most perfect emotionally unstable hosts.
Take some time to reflect on the upcoming Holiday season. Try to make efficient use of your time and energy. Rest when you are tired, and do not be afraid to say no when you are exhausted and cannot do another thing. Respect your body and it will serve you well. Disrespect it and it will become fertile ground for a common cold or reactivation of a Herpes virus.
But then again, the viruses will have a great Holiday as you suffer from an untimely illness. Your choice.
Doc
Posted by Amanda Sanders at 8:04 AM
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