Why we get sick when seasons change
The old wives’ tale that cold weather makes us sick sounds logical but it doesn’t stack up. Scientists gradually are gaining a better understanding of the factors at play when sickness peaks at the change of seasons.
The first factor is an environmental one. People spend more time indoors in a heated environment during the winter. This creates the perfect breeding ground for pathogens — the tiny organisms that make us sick. Being close together also increases the likelihood that we’ll be exposed to germs carried by the coughs and sneezes of others. And this at a time when our bodies are operating under extra stress as they try to maintain a steady internal temperature while adapting to colder weather outside.
Genetics and immunity
Our genetic makeup and immune system are also an important part of the picture. A recent study at the University of Cambridge shows that almost a quarter of the genes associated with immunity vary between summer and winter. Our immune system reacts to temperature, daylight and other environmental factors that are the subject of on-going research.
Our immune system is one of 12 body systems. It’s responsible for defending the body against external threats (allergens, bacteria, toxins) and internal threats (such as potentially cancerous cells.) There are two main branches of the immune system that work together to provide the best defence possible: the ‘innate’ and the ‘adaptive’ immune responses.
Our first line of defence
The innate response is a general immune reaction — it doesn’t discriminate against specific bacteria or parasites. Inflammation is one of the main innate responses. On the outside, you may only see a cut as red, swollen, warm and slightly painful. But on the inside, there is a complex system of cells and molecules at play that work to prevent any outside pathogens from entering your body and causing damage.
The second response, the adaptive response, is more effective and builds up a long-term defence mechanism targeting the specific threats it is exposed to. As an example, most of us will have had chicken pox as children. Our adaptive immune system will have identified and mounted a large defence against the virus on first contact to counter the threat. Unlike the innate system, the adaptive remains ready to recognise and deal with a future threat from the virus, often with no external symptoms.
There’s a lot we can do to help support our immune system on a day-to-day basis so that we’re ready to deal with sickness when it comes our way. Good nutrition is one of the best ways to create a stronger immune system.
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