Why are some people more likely to get sick?
Have you ever wondered why some people get sick more often than others? During a recent wedding reception my friends and I sat together at one table for dinner. One person amidst us appeared to be sick with a cold and frequent cough and she was telling everybody, “Stay away from me, if you don’t want to catch my virus.” Two days later, I found out that one of my friends who sat with us that day, and only him, came down with the same respiratory infection and he had to take a full course of antibiotics.
This is not exactly an uncommon phenomenon and we often hear remarks like, “You know, Jim is so prone to get sick or he is the first one to catch any virus that goes around.” Why is that? Is Jim just unlucky all the time or are there some special characteristics in us that make us prone to becoming sick? I am not talking about the elderly, frail people or those who have a chronic deficiency in their immune system; they are all more susceptible to get infections. It’s about the regular, seemingly healthy people who seem to get sick more often than others. And vice versa is also true — some people never get sick, no matter what’s going around. Isn’t that interesting?
A common observation supported by scientific studies is that about one-third of those exposed to a virus infection express symptoms and often these are the same people who develop recurrent infections. One expert Dr. Sheldon Cohen, a professor of neuropsychoimmunology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who has studied these people, says, “Those who have been under stress prior to exposure to the virus were more likely to develop that infection.”
If so, the next question is, “What are the specific stressors that play a major role in causing this phenomenon?” According to Dr. Cohen, “It’s the chronic stress that matters like something that had lasted more than six months prior to exposure to the virus.” It appears the two most potent stressors are “long-term conflicts with people and being unemployed or underemployed; both these seem to have health consequences.” One theory is that under these conditions, our immune system overproduces pro-inflammatory proteins, and these proteins seem to trigger the symptoms of being sick when exposed to a virus. Ordinarily, these proteins are suppressed by the level of cortisol circulating in our blood but because of continuous overproduction of cortisol in chronically stressed people, the body becomes relatively resistant to the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol.
A second factor that aids in this phenomenon is your social network and support system. People with the lowest levels of social activity were about four times as likely to become sick than those who had many social roles to play like ‘spouse, parent, friend, caregiver, volunteer,’ etc. In my practice, I have often noted those who live by themselves (especially elderly widowers and bachelors) tend to suffer from more illnesses than others and we often encourage them to get a companion. There are other features like “individual genetic characteristics and environmental variations” that can influence the susceptibility of a person for infections. Also, people from lower socioeconomic strata seem to suffer more than others.
What steps can we do to improve the situation? To begin with, try to reduce stress in your life. Easily said than done, right? At least try to take steps to remove oneself from stressful situations as much as possible. As I have mentioned before, it’s not so much the stress itself that contributes to the adverse effects in your body but it’s the way you react or handle that stress. This will need some self-discipline and internal training. Those who practices yoga, meditation and mindful awareness seem to be able to adjust to adverse situations much better than others. Also try to be more social; you can sign up for volunteer work and be involved in community projects and such. Developing a good friendship circle will help. A recent Harvard study concluded, “Having solid friendships in our life helps promote both physical and mental health.”
General instructions like, “Washing the hands as often as needed and avoiding close contact with persons affected by the viruses” need to be diligently observed. And, of course, don’t forget to get vaccinated every year; this prevents a lot of flu attacks. The flu season is already upon us and it’s important to remember flu-related deaths are common in the elderly, so prevention is most important.