Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: your kid starts preschool and all of a sudden, your house is struck by the plague, week after week. Back before I had kids and knew everything about parenting, I swore this wouldn’t be me, and yet here I sit with yet another cold that won’t go away. After some sneezing and digging (not in my nose, but online), I found a number of interesting leads as to why moms may always be so sick.
It’s long been known that women suffer from autoimmune illnesses more frequently than men do, and I was fascinated to discover that one reason might be because our immune systems are different from men’s to begin with. Back in 1999, Science reported that women’s bodies are geared to fight viral infections, while men produce more of the proteins needed to fight bacterial infections.
Hormonal imbalances can lead to major immune changes, either weakening the systems and allowing for frequent infections, or heightening the responses and triggering an autoimmune illness. This piece by Applied Health does a great job explaining the relationships, and how a mother’s fluctuating hormones might make her vulnerable to disease.
The adrenal glands produce cortisol, which in measure is good for the immune system. If the person—and therefore the system—is stressed, the excess cortisol does major damage to immunity. Low thyroid levels, common in new moms, lead to a decrease in natural killer cells, the body’s first line of defense, and hamper the body’s ability to deal with infection and inflammation. High levels of estrogen is directly linked to decreased immunity, and low levels of progesterone are linked to autoimmune disease. Lucky us.
We also have a less active immune responses when we're tired, because the body is preserving energy for survival rather than spending it on fighting disease.
It’s well known that a lack of sleep can lead to frequent colds and flus, but why? For one, a lack of sleep lowers T-cell levels (your body’s defenders) and increases inflammatory cytokines, which can lead to aches and pains all over the body. We also have a less active immune responses when we're tired, because the body is preserving energy for survival rather than spending it on fighting disease. This decreases the effectiveness of our fever response, to name one, meaning that when we are infected, the illness spreads faster and takes longer to heal.
Isolation & Depression
These two factors, both common in new moms, have a similar effect on the immune system. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 showed that lonely people had higher levels of norepinephrine in their blood. In nature, this kind of responses would occur in life-threatening situations, where the body uses it’s resources to escape and heal wounds, detracting from our ability to fight off infections, especially viral ones. Studies have also shown that people who are socially active (in real life, not online) have a higher resistance to viral infections.
Both stress and worry act like isolation and depression on the immune system. Your body prepares itself for impact by drawing resources away from non-necessary functions, and while this can help survive stressful situations, it also comes with a heavy price tag. Raised cortisol that isn’t properly metabolized continues to increase inflammation and lowers the immune response, leaving moms vulnerable to disease, and sadly, even more prone to worry and anxiety.
While we know that we need to eat a balanced diet to stay healthy, research is also showing that maintaining a healthy weight is critical to a good immune response. Carrying excess fat can change our hormonal makeup, which as we talked about earlier, changes how our bodies fight disease. While your weight may be a remnant of your proud days as a baby factory, extra belly fat can also point to high levels of estrogen, as well as high insulin and cortisol.