The surprising link between low moods and catching a cold

Have you ever noticed that you seem to get sick after a period of intense stress, anger or sadness? It’s not just you – there is a real link between mood and immunity.

We all know that being in a bad mood can make us feel physically worse. Imagine a day when work’s a stressful mess, you’ve forgotten a friend’s birthday, you had a bad night’s sleep and you can’t lift your mood. Whatever the reasons, you feel pretty rubbish.

And now, to add insult to injury, you suddenly come down with a rotten cold. Typical! It turns out that it’s more than just coincidence that when you’re at your lowest, you also tend to get sick: bad mood can really impact your health.

According to studies, negative emotions make you more likely to get ill. Yep, prolonged exposure to negative emotions can impact the healthy functioning of your immune system.

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Nutritionist Nicola Shubrook explains: “Our moods can have a direct impact on our physical health. Psychoneuroimmunology is a branch of science that focuses on the interaction between the brain and the immune system, and our emotions play a key role in the strength of our immune systems.”

With winter fast approaching and those autumnal bugs lurking in the air, we’re all willing to try boosting our immune system, especially if it’s as simple as shifting our outlooks on things. But immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi tells Stylist it’s not as easy as it sounds: “It’s well known that emotions such as stress can have a huge impact on the immune system, and there is certainly a link between mood and immunity, but it’s not exactly straightforward.”

It can be helpful to think back to the last time you had a fever to better understand the link. For me, this was Christmas 2019. I felt more ill than I ever have, resulting in me sobbing feverishly on the sofa while my whole family went festive ice skating (and let’s not get into the was it or wasn’t it Covid debate).

The link between low mood and low immunity

Dr Macciochi explains: “Alongside feeling unwell, you were also experiencing a suite of psychological and psychosocial changes. You probably experienced lethargy, social withdrawal, depression, low mood and a reduction in taking care of your basic needs such as washing and feeding yourself correctly.”

It’s a hard relate for me: my only social interaction that week was calling my long-suffering GP sister-in-law to bemoan my plight.

‘Sickness behaviour’ helps us get better quicker

Interestingly, the purpose of this withdrawal from everyday life is two-fold, as Dr Macciochi explains: “These changes are known as ‘sickness behaviours’ and are basically a set of adaptive behavioural changes that develop in response to your immune system becoming activated by an infection and initiating an inflammatory response. 

“The inflammatory molecules act on the brain to change our behaviour. In the first instance, this helps us to get better quicker by conserving energy, and secondly, it helps to prevent the spread of germs, as we are withdrawn socially.”

Interestingly, the overlap doesn’t stop here. Feelings of depression, loneliness and low mood can all impact our energy levels and motivation, meaning we’re less likely to get out and meet up with people, or take some exercise – both of which are hugely beneficial not only physically, but mentally too.

So, there’s definitely a link between immune health and feelings, but how far can we really take this?

Short-term anxiety boosts immunity but chronic anxiety lowers it

Shubrook breaks it down: “It’s commonly accepted that when we are anxious, part of the body’s innate survival instinct is to go into fight, flight or freeze mode. As well as releasing chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol, the body also “boosts” the immune system during this time. But the challenge comes when we struggle with negative emotions such as low mood, depression or anxiety over a longer period of time. 

“These kinds of emotions increase the production of certain hormones which cause low-grade inflammation, as well as reducing the body’s production of protective killer cells. Collectively, this leads to weakened immunity.”

The good news is that the experts agree we’re talking about long-term, frequent exposure to negative emotions. Feeling cross with the person who stole your parking spot might not be advisable, but as a one-off, it won’t do you any harm.

How mood can make us fitter and healthier

Anger can actually benefit our physical health

In fact, Dr Macciochi reveals an analysis of pre-match rugby players showed “a positive association between the states of anger, aggression and anxiety and immune function. Evolutionarily speaking, the immune-enhancing effect of anger was beneficial, since our ancestors’ anger often preceded physical violence. In these circumstances, an immune system primed for action would certainly have been advantageous.”

The next time you’re experiencing those pre-race jitters, you can rest assured that they can, in the short term, fuel your performance. 

Positive thinking can support healthy immunity

And there’s more good news, as the experts agree that having a positive approach to life has been shown to improve immune function: “Research has shown that positive thinking helps keep inflammation levels in the body low, allowing our immune systems to perform at their optimum level. So being more upbeat day to day will have protective benefits for your body’s ability to ward off infections” says Shubrook.

Incredibly, when my son stomped in from school last week complaining that he was going to get a cold from being in a bad mood all day, he might have been onto something.

Out of the mouths of babes, hey?

Images: Getty

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