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Chronic stress makes colds worse: what to do

Researchers have been swabbing noses with cold viruses for years, discovering that certain lifestyle factors -- such as lack of sleep and stress -- makes a person more susceptible to developing a runny nose, hacking cough, and all-over achy feeling. Now, though, a new study lays out a plausible explanation for why those under chronic stress are likely to get more frequent colds: The body’s reaction to the stress hormone cortisol becomes impaired when stress is prolonged, making cortisol unable to turn down the immune reaction that causes cold symptoms.

In the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers asked 276 volunteers detailed questions to determine if they were under chronic stress due to, say, unemployment, marriage troubles, or being a full-time caregiver to a sick loved one. They found those who scored high on the chronic stress scale were more likely to have severe cold symptoms after being infected with a virus compared to those who scored low on the scale. Stressed-out folks also had higher levels of inflammatory chemicals that indicated their bodies had developed a resistance to cortisol.

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“It’s an issue of regulation,” said study author Dr. Sheldon Cohen, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “You’d like to have some inflammatory response to fight off the cold virus but not so much of it that you have severe symptoms.”

Cortisol resistance, he added, may be related to other inflammation-driven conditions such as heart disease and autoimmune diseases like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.

Unfortunately, there may not be much you can do to avoid the curve balls that throw your life into a tailspin. But some research suggests that adopting certain lifestyle measures can help lower your body’s level of inflammation. These include eating a Mediterranean-style diet -- rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, and fish -- and getting moderate amounts of daily exercise, about 30 to 60 minutes at a time. (Those who exercise for long periods training for triathlons or marathons may experience an increase in inflammatory chemicals.)

Getting adequate amounts of sleep, about seven to eight hours every night, can also reduce inflammation, and you may want to remember to floss before bedtime. Practicing good dental hygiene can help reduce inflammation and swelling in the gums. Previous research has shown that those with gum disease have increased levels of inflammation elsewhere in their body.

Meditation can also help reduce inflammation by lowering your body’s response to stress. Here are ways to practice mindfulness meditation.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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