A new term making the headlines recently is the “Let-Down effect” also known as the Let-Down syndrome. This newly labelled condition describes how our bodies succumb to illness the moment we take time off, the moment we let down our hair, so to speak. How many times have your heard of, or even experienced yourself, arriving at your holiday destination only to spend the first few days in the bed – sick, in pain and extremely fatigued? It is a thing and even though I have only recently learned its official name – post-stress illness has been a thing for quite some time.
The classification and recognition of this pattern in medicine is new, not the condition itself explains psychologist Marc Schoen, clinical professor of medicine in UCLA. His investigations examines “people who come down with an illness or develop flare-ups of chronic conditions not during a concentrated period of stress but after it dissipates”. With vacation season officially open, and people taking a well-earned break from what has been an extraordinary stressful period, it is not too late to learn how your food and lifestyle in the run up to your holiday can prevent this kind of let down.
The Let-Down effect is most associated with conditions such as upper respiratory infections, flu, migraine, headaches, dermatitis, arthritis pain and depression within a few days of being on vacation. People living with chronic inflammatory and/or autoimmune conditions such as fibromyalgia, asthma, Crohn’s Disease and Lupus have also seen increase in flare-ups while away on holidays. Prof. Marc Schoen and his team pinpointed that the Let Down effect is triggered in the first three days of your holiday, yet many symptoms can linger depending on your own vulnerabilities and risk factors. During acute stress, the body releases key hormones – including glucocorticoids (like cortisol), catecholamines (like norepinephrine) and adrenaline – to prepare itself to fight or flee from danger and to trigger the immune system to step up certain types of surveillance for the threat of attack. In the process, glucocorticoids can reactivate dormant viral infections such as herpes simplex 1 (which causes cold sores) and Epstein-Barr virus (which can trigger fatigue, fever, sore throat and swollen glands), for which symptoms are only obvious after a few days. This explains some of those post-stress symptoms.
The hormones which mobilize your immune system against illness during stressful times are down-regulated once the stressful period ends - your immune system pulls back its troops, and the body becomes less vigilant in weeding out invaders, leaving you more vulnerable to a viral or bacterial attack in those first few days. At the same time, says Schoen, a reservoir of body chemicals called prostaglandins, left over from the stress response, tends to produce inflammation, and can trigger problems like arthritic pain, migraines and inflammatory skin conditions. Likewise, an increase in inflammation can exacerbate autoimmune conditions, as can our own response to being in unfamiliar surroundings.
Interestingly, most of the recommendations from these studies require slowing the pace leading up to a holiday and building in some strategies to wind down slowly in those first few days of your holiday. These include some tried and trusted stress-management techniques – yoga, meditation, breathing techniques and improving sleep. But when you just have a few days to prepare, the best thing to do is concentrate on breath – breathing in such a way that you tune into it, slow it down and be aware of your inhale/exhale flow. Schoen also recommends that instead of going from 100 to 0, in terms of stress, to wind down in increments in the days prior to your holiday – 100, 80, 60, 40….. lessening the demands as you approach your holiday. He goes on to say that in those first few days of your holiday, instead of hitting zero all of a sudden, to include some moderate stress-inducing exercises (hill walking, jogging, paddle-boarding) and mental exercises with time limits (to induce a little stress) such as time-restricted sudoku, crosswords and word-game at the beginning of your break. Studies have shown that those who wind down slowly and include a little “controlled stress” in the first few days of holidays as described above fare out much better than those who go from high-doh to zero on the way to their destination.
From a nutritional point of view you can mitigate much of the risk of “Let-Down Effect” by ensuring that you are having regular mealtimes in the week before you go on holiday. This means three square meals, evenly spaced out with a couple of snacks in between. Steady, even paced eating will ensure that you are tuning into a reassuring pattern, which ultimately sends signals to the body that “all is well, relax”. Preparing for holidays is often a high-stress time, making sure all the jobs are done, clothes are laundered for the suitcases and the family pet is cared for, not to mind those last few work-related tasks that must be finished off. Exercise, time outdoors, home-cooked meals and good sleep are often sacrificed in the last few days leading up to a holiday, which increases the stress response, leading to a sharp downfall once all is done. Factor this in your pre-holiday schedule, making sure that you have the shopping done for that last week, time scheduled for exercise and getting outdoors and get to bed before 11am – so that you wind down slowly in the run up to your break.
Support the stress response by eating foods rich in vitamin B5 (yogurt, eggs, legumes, lentils mushrooms, avocado, broccoli, sweet potatoes, corn, cauliflower, kale, and tomatoes). The foods that can influence your prostaglandin reservoirs to induce an anti-inflammatory response include avocado, sardines, tuna, walnut, pumpkin seeds, olives and olive oil – lessening pro-inflammatory responses by the post-stress debris. Supplementing with omega 3, B vitamin- complex and Vitamin C can also be a useful part of our holiday plan.
Rest assured, that while there are lots of factors involved in the post-stress response, some common sense, good food and sleep before your holiday will ensure that it will be the well-earned break you deserve.