Has this ever happened to you?
You’ve worked hard all year, and you’re so ready for that break you’ve been planning and the moment you clock off and begin to unwind, suddenly, your body starts to feel like you’re coming down with something?
Unfortunately, this is all too common. In fact, researchers have even been exploring the mechanisms behind this phenomenon, which has been dubbed ‘leisure sickness‘. The most commonly reported symptoms include nausea, headache, migraine, fatigue, muscle aches and pains or other flu-like symptoms.
If this is something you can relate to or experienced first-hand, then read on, because your body is sending up a distress signal.
Why do we get sick when we take a break?
In the lead-up to taking a break from work, we’re often working at a heightened, frenetic pace to get extra work done to account for the time off we’re about to take. This can add significantly to our regular daily stress load, which to be fair, may already be too high and not being balanced out with proper self-care.
Stress can be a bit like an invisible parasite leaching away resources to feed its own needs.
When we are under stress, our body produces a hormone called cortisol. First, it’s important to point out that not all cortisol is bad. We do have naturally fluctuating levels of cortisol across the day that form an important part of our biorhythms. (This is why when under chronic stress, one of the signs things are out of balance can be sleep problems.) Where cortisol becomes problematic is when it’s too high over too long a period of time.
As stress levels rise, so too do cortisol levels. This is often referred to as the flight or fight response. This clever hormonal pathway was designed to initiate survival systems in the body to help us flee from a threat (like being eaten by a bear!) and not for the kind of long-term stressors we experience in modern life. When a cortisol boost is delivered in a short burst, it’s quickly rebalanced as the threat is neutralised. In long-term stress, cortisol is left to exert its effect over long periods of time, and this can bring about a number of consequences. One of the biggest issues is that elevated cortisol can have a suppressing effect on our immune system whilst simultaneously burning through significant nutrients that foot the bill of the boosted cortisol.
The Distress Signal From Your Body.
Whilst cortisol is boosted, it’s a bit like having a maniac driver at the wheel of your car. (Even though you might have needed that crazy driver to help you get to your destination faster!). The problem is, to achieve this warp speed arrival, now your car is covered in scratches and dings, your engine is overheating, and your fuel gauge is empty.
This is like your body after prolonged stress, and you’ve finally put the handbrake on at your destination and can take a moment to take a breath and do a systems check.
And so this is how we can end up with sickness as we take a break; As our body begins to unwind and relax, signals are sent out that tell our body it can curb that heightened cortisol output. Now that cortisol is lowered it’s not masking problems or stealing resources (nutrients) from elsewhere. It can quickly become apparent that these overloaded systems (struggling to keep pace with the body’s physical and mental demands) now need to do some repair and maintenance. The trouble is, your stress levels have been writing cheques that your body can’t cash. You’ve been too busy to eat well, exercise, socialise, de-stress, replenish, relax, sleep and restore. Your engine light is on. Your body does what it needs to do, it sends out signals to slow you down so it can repair and reboot.
Say hello to fatigue, swollen glands, sore or scratchy throat, headache, fatigue, and body aches…. Sound familiar?
In some ways, the flu-like symptoms are your body forcibly telling you to slow down. In your high-stress mode, you probably overlooked the more subtle signs because you were too busy to notice! What’s worse is when coupled with stress-induced immune suppression, it can also mean you’re far more susceptible to catching any bug that passes you by too.
What can we do to prevent leisure sickness?
Prioritise eating well. This means counting nutrients over calories. (In fact, calorie restriction can be a form of stress!) Make meal times non-negotiable and plan for success. Stop grabbing quick takeaways and reaching for those snacks to tie you over because you ‘don’t have time’ to eat. Don’t eat on the run either. Give your body every chance it needs to extract the nutrients it needs to run efficiently. Make this priority one.
- Replenish lost nutrients.
When under stress, the body will burn through many important nutrients that can quickly become depleted if levels are already low, or we aren’t eating well. Nutrients such as B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and vitamin C are all rapidly used up when we’re under stress. These are also many of the same nutrients we also need for efficient immunity.
Sleep is an underrated daily life supplement. In this technology-centred world, we understand the value in performing a full shutdown and re-boot on computers and devices. Similarly, the body benefits in the same way. Sleep is vital to optimising healing and repair work and is an important cheque to cash for tomorrow’s energy and efficiency.
- Address Stress At All Costs.
If you’re under stress daily you need to take urgent action to offset and rebalance it. This can be achieved through self-care like exercise, relaxation practices, massage, having fun, laughing, socialising and also with targeted supplementation. Nutrients like phosphatidylserine can help mitigate high cortisol and herbs like Rhodiola and nutrients like magnesium can help calm and soothe a wired, overworked nervous system.
Supporting the body with self-care and targeted supplementation during times of stress can go a long way to preventing that crash and burn when we want to take a well-earned break. We are only gifted one body in this lifetime and we need to treat it with the love and respect it deserves. In return, it will reward us with being able to think and feel our best.