A Woman in bed with a cold

The Common Cold: A Mind-Body Perspective

If the sniffles are getting you down, what you’re about to discover just might help you stay healthier this season.

While we’ve been blasted with countless ads touting the benefits of Vitamin C, Echinacea and a host of other natural remedies, rarely do we consider key mind-body strategies for preventing the common cold.

The reason is obvious. There’s absolutely no profit potential in what I’m about to suggest. You won’t find ads on television or in magazines for these approaches. They’re not available in health food stores, nor can you purchase them over-the-counter or by prescription in a pharmacy.

You might even find some of these suggestions counter to a respectable authoritarian source I rarely choose to challenge – our grandmothers. Despite this bravado I assure you there is a credible scientific foundation supporting these simple yet rather effective suggestions. So stay with me for a few moments.

Let’s begin with a two-pronged approach. The first focuses on factors that exist before exposure to a common cold virus, and the second addresses the probability of developing an infection once the virus has already entered your system.

Consider the following example: Jane is a busy secretary who’s recently been experiencing marital difficulties. In addition to ongoing stresses at work, her home life is even more challenging. With little spare time, Jane has lost interest in activities she previously enjoyed. To worsen matters, Friday she received a pink slip. Jane is frustrated, defeated and convinced there’s no end in sight.

Her friend Jill, however, is also in a similar boat. Yet she’s been actively striving to reduce her perception of stress through marital counseling and practicing relaxation techniques. While work is undoubtedly pressured and more time is required on the job, lunch breaks are spent on brisk walks, and she never misses her weekly Yoga class. Despite her present situation, Jill is beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Both women have lunch with a mutual friend who exposes them to a common cold virus she is harboring. The question of the hour is: Who is more likely to get sick?

If you chose Jane, your answer is correct. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine (1991) supports your assumption. Sheldon Cohen and colleagues studied the probability of illness 7-10 days after direct exposure to viruses that cause upper respiratory infections. The researchers found that stressful life events, perceived stress and negative affect (the week before the study) were key factors that predicted who was more likely to get sick.

This data isn’t difficult to accept for most of us. Yet if we take our discussion one step further, what you’re about to learn may be surprising.

Let’s consider another example.

Tom is a hard-working division manager who returns home each evening exhausted. He rarely goes out, and spends most of his free time catching up on chores around the house or surfing the internet. Apart from work, he leaves home only to shop and pick up the laundry.

His co-worker, John is a division manager for the same firm. His job also takes its toll, yet John is socially active. In fact, he’s almost never home. John regularly attends a number of service club meetings and church events. He visits friends regularly and has lunch with his brother at least once each week. He’s always on the go.

Assuming both men have been exposed to the common cold virus within the last 2 weeks, who is more likely to develop the infection?

The answer is… Tom! Contrary to kitchen table wisdom, staying home and avoiding social contacts doesn’t help prevent the illness.

Here’s the proof. The same group of scientists studied 276 healthy volunteers who were intentionally given nasal drops containing rhinoviruses that cause the common cold (Journal of the American Medical Association, 1997). Individuals with more diverse social relationships (within a 2-week period) including friends, relatives, co-workers, neighbors, fellow members of community and religious organizations were less likely to become ill. People with 6 or more types of relationships actually had less than 25% the risk of infection compared with those who had 3 or less types of relationships.

The bottom line is clear. Contrary to what you might have believed, perceived stress and social isolation do have a tendency to increase your risk of developing common viral infections. It’s a fact that learning to deal with your stress is one important step toward remaining healthy. And while you’re at it, (I’m not suggesting deliberate exposure to those who are ill during the flu season) staying home alone and avoiding social contact may not be in your best interest either – Mind Over Matter!

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Written by Barry Bittman MD

Explore Wellness in 2021