How feeling sorry for yourself can make you sick

The Cortisol Connection

A bit of psychoneuro-immunology here, I thought it would be a nice topic to know something about as a fresh(ly engineered) batch of weird flu hits at the onset of the cool weather.

Your immune system is regulated by a variety of hormones.  Two important ones are cortisol and adrenaline.  Both regulate the immune system down (negative feedback loop), but in different ways.

You all know what adrenaline does.  It “mobilizes” you, activates the external muscles (sometimes so acutely that they start quivering, like after a huge fright or major offence), it makes your heart-rate go up and enlarges blood vessels to the muscles.  Simultaneously it narrows bloodvessels supplying the stomach and various other internal organs (with the notable exception of heart and lungs); when you have to fight or run, you can’t focus on digesting.  Neither do you have time to fight viruses, at that moment.  People who have a lot of adrenaline reactions also tend to get sick easily as energy is diverted away from the immune system into the peripherals all the time.

Cortisol has a slightly different action.  It calms you down and sends the message “all is alright”.  At the same time it calms inflammation – interferes with the inflammatory reaction of the immune system and suppresses the activity of immune cells.  This makes sense – if you’ve been bitten by a tiger, your wound needs healing, and while some immunity is of course needed, too much inflammation can cause damage and too much immune response can cause the body to attack its own tissues (known as autoimmune diseases, examples are asthma, eczema, psoriasis etc.)

Cortisol is dependent on the mood just as much as adrenaline is.  When one feels sorry for oneself, the immune system is suppressed because cortisol is released.  Over longer times, this can lead to a chronically weak immune system, and invaders have an easy time.  The PLOM disease (“poor little old me”) turns into real disease, making the PLOM even sorrier for himself.

Conversely, those die-hards who just never get sick because they are too busy:  Their “no-nonsense” attitude to work and life in general causes suppression of cortisol.  Result:  A supercharged immune system, so strong it starts attacking the own body.  Consequence:  Autoimmune diseases.

There you have it.  😀

3 thoughts on “How feeling sorry for yourself can make you sick

  1. Let me get this straight. We’re not supposed to feel sorry for ourselves or we’ll get sick. And we’re not supposed to be “no nonsense” and productive or we’ll get sick. What the heck are we supposed to do? And talking of weird flu – I have lost my voice, every teacher’s nightmare and every student’s and husband’s delight (I have given up on gestures and have started sending him text messages which he ignores – however, now HE has it). It has been weeks with no energy (although I never missed work – my students do seem to understand my rather frantic and graphic gestures and I had one gratifying moment when I asked one of my fathers who is a conductor to take over my group lesson while I went to play with the “violas” and he announced at the end of the session that he was exhausted – Ha!), very little voice and lots of coughing. When I called my endocrinologist to tell him how miserable I am (I have no thyroid), he spent half an hour telling me how miserable HE is. I was very sympathetic. So I don’t know what hormones are at play (or not) but will someone PLEASE tell me how to get over this thing?? Or tell me what hormones are responsible so I can take ’em or not, be calm or agitated, or productive or self-pitying??? Yours truly confused. Eloise. p.s. I hope you’re fine. I’m not.

    • Very sorry to hear of your condition! What must you do? Echinaforce, and elder flower tea. The personalities & attitudes are more a predictor as to how easily you catch a disease. Once you’ve got it, good idea to get into bed with a hot toddy and a good book (preferably written by me :-D) and relax. The cortisol (yes you are entitled to a bit of self-pity) will keep you under the blankets and sleeping a lot (it makes us drowsy in the bargain) which will mean you’ll get well faster. Btw don’t take hormones – your body produces enough on its own, LOL. I know you know. That is, with the exception of whatever thyroid hormines are being given to you.

      I seriously hope your husband’s condition doesn’t escalate into man flu. No matter how sick we get, when a man gets man flu he is by definition almost dead and needs our full attention – a routine that you can afford to do without right now.

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