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What does stress have to do with the common cold?

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By Jackie Rainford Corcoran EBS Health Columnist

What does stress have to do with the common cold? It turns out, quite a bit. Let’s consider how the stress response works in the body.

If we feel excited or threatened, hormones like adrenalin surge to boost our energy, focus our attention and improve our reaction time. Production of the hormone cortisol increases and causes additional sugar to be released into the bloodstream to provide the brain with extra energy.

Cortisol also curbs other systems that aren’t critical for keeping us alive during a stressful event. It regulates inflammatory, immune, digestive, reproductive and growth systems. Once the excitement or perceived threat passes, the body returns to a normal baseline.

Good stress, or “eustress,” is short term. It focuses energy, feels exciting, improves performance and is perceived as within our coping abilities. It might occur during joyful events in life such as the birth of a child, receiving a promotion or taking a vacation.

The opposite of eustress is distress, also called negative stress. It’s can be short- or long-term, causes anxiety, feels unpleasant, decreases performance, can lead to mental and physical problems and is perceived as outside of our coping abilities. It might occur due to relationship or money issues, excessive demands, lack of sleep or illness.

A problem many of us face today is that we’re spending too much time in distress and the body has less opportunity to return to a healthy baseline.

In 2012, Carnegie Mellon University published the work of a research team led by Sheldon Cohen. They found that people suffering from psychological stress are more susceptible to developing common colds. They found that symptoms of the common cold are not caused by the virus but are instead a side effect of the inflammatory response—the greater the body’s inflammatory response to the virus, the greater the likelihood of experiencing the symptoms of a cold.

It seems that prolonged stress decreases the body’s sensitivity to cortisol. This means that cortisol loses its ability to regulate the inflammatory response and creates uncontrolled inflammation, which promotes the development and progression of many diseases.

“The immune system’s ability to regulate inflammation predicts who will develop a cold, but more importantly it provides an explanation of how stress can promote disease,” Cohen wrote in the report. “When under stress, cells of the immune system are unable to respond to hormonal control, and consequently, produce levels of inflammation that promote disease. Because inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders, this model suggests why stress impacts them as well.”

This is a great reason to become aware of our own stress patterns and learn to manage them. Meditation, exercise, the outdoors and simple breathing exercises are all great tools for mitigating stress. Also, eating a healthy diet of whole foods rather than processed foods while reducing sugar and caffeine help us become more resilient during stressful events.

An oft-overlooked tool that goes a long way in preventing and reducing stress is good communication. Check out the book “Nonviolent Communication” to learn more.

During the holiday season, feeling overwhelmed and stressed out is not uncommon. It’s also the cold and flu season. Coincidence? Maybe not.

Jackie Rainford Corcoran is an IIN Certified Holistic Health Coach and Consultant, a public speaker and health activist. Contact her at

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