How the Influenza and Common Cold Make You Mentally Sick as a Dog

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Influenza and Common Cold Comic

Influenza got you drowsy?

The common cold making you feel stupid?

There’s a good reason for that: your body is doing that on purpose!

Whether ill-stricken with the influenza or the common cold, there’s a lot going on in our bodies when we’re hit with these viruses.  We’re sneezing, coughing, throats are sore, we’re disgusting; but what goes on in our nervous system as this internal fight is going down? Keep reading to find out.

The Common Cold

When feeling ill, we’re not on our best mental game as U.K. researchers found.  They tested 189 men and women when they were healthy on reaction time, verbal-reasoning skills, memory and mood.  Of the 189 participants, 48 participants developed a cold and were retested within 24 to 96 hours of being symptomatic rating their sore throat and sneezing symptoms on a 5-point scale. Their sleep duration was accessed as well. While the healthy remaining 141 participants without symptoms were retested 12 weeks later [source].

A significant difference was found between healthy participants versus sick ones on the tests, including the ones for: mood, including alertness and well-being, reaction time, memory, information processing and speed [source].  Accuracy on the memory-recall tests remain unaffected.  The healthy subjects were able to improve their tests indicating that learning may be impaired during a cold as it interrupts our abilities to store new memories and information.

Why the impairment?

The moment we come down with a virus, our body detects the invading bug leading our immune system to release several specific cytokines.  These small proteins are immune system messengers: they alert the Central Nervous System that we’re sick and need a counter-attack.  At the same time, they also play mind games with us since our mood is the first thing to change; both men and women get pissy and short-tempered [source].

While fighting a cold, there is a flood of chemicals that screw with our mental performance, specifically reaction time and alertness.  While our ability to formulate verbal information coherently suffers, there are changes happening in our frontal lobes which creates problems with psychomotor functions, things like: coordination, strength, speed, and balance – you know, important things.

The level of cognitive impairment we experience during the common cold mimics the effects of alcohol consumption, working at night, or working prolonged hours.  Cold viruses interfere with neurotransmitters causing that wonderful mental sluggishness.  It was proposed that the common cold virus perhaps affects the transmission of the following neurotransmitters in specific:

1) noradrenaline (reaction time)

2) choline (encoding new information)

3) dopamine (working memory speed)

Writing that report will not be your only challenge, think twice before getting behind the wheel.  Those under weather due to the common cold are also more likely to bump into curbs and tailgate others while driving since their ability to detect collisions decrease versus those who are healthy.

Influenza

Similar to the common cold, influenza will produce the same cognitive impairments.  In a Journal of Neuroscience article, scientists found that influenza infected mice exhibited increased inflammation in the hippocampus, an area important for cognitive function, and cognitive deficits.

Here’s where it gets interesting…

In contrast to the common cold, Washington State University Spokane scientists found a brain protein that boosts healing power while asleep and speeds recovery when infected with the influenza virus [source].

This brain protein, AcPb, is essential for Influenza recovery but it also involves, Interleukin-1, an immune system signaling chemical.  The latter chemical is an inflammatory molecule that is responsible for those freezing, aching, feverish symptoms we love so dearly and makes us hate life.

While influenza is a lung disease, it somehow manages to reach the brain causing an inflammatory reaction that involves Interleukin-1 and AcPb thus inducing the increased sleep response that helps the body overcome. Sleep is necessary for a healthy immune system and is critical to our body’s response to bacterial and viral infections.

Without this protein animals developed more severe symptoms of the infection and died at higher rates than regular or control mice.  Mice who lacked AcPb slept less after becoming infected and developed symptoms of chills, sluggishness, loss of normal circadian rhythms, and died in higher numbers than mice who slept longer amounts.

This discovery could lead to an alternative influenza treatment by using intranasal sprays to stimulate the production of brain protein AcPb and help regulate sleep similarly like in the bodies of healthy animals.

Other Contributing Factors:

Interestingly enough, amongst all that stress that comes with parenting there comes a benefit for caring for those those precious walking petri dishes called children: parents have an extra resistance to colds. Stephen Cohen PhD., found that parents aged 25 and older were less likely to develop colds after exposure to viruses than people without children [source].

While you may think it is due to greater exposure to germs not so, actually scientists theorize that parenthood produces feelings of purpose in life and positive emotional experiences that help boost the immune system.  Older parents were found to be less susceptible to colds regardless if they were married or still had children living at home with them or not.

Unfortunately, this benefit didn’t apply to parents ages 18-24. It was theorized that younger parents may not receive same protective benefit against colds because they are less prepared psychologically and economically to be parents and thus, this increases feelings of being overwhelmed.

Another contributing factor is: stress.  Stress increases the likelihood of infection for people who suffer prolonged long-time stress, more than a month, of interpersonal stressors,  such as work conflicts or bad marriages; and were found to be 2 ½ times more likely to get a cold.  Those who are unemployed or underemployed were 5 times more likely! [source]

Stressed groups are found to engage in unhealthy activities like smoking and skipping exercises but that wasn’t found to be the main culprit. When chronically stressed our body produces too much cortisol, a stress hormone that helps regulate level of cytokines. The increase in hormone levels causes our immune cells to become insensitive to cortisol, triggering  the release of more cytokines that exacerbate oncoming cold symptoms. Thus, making you feel more shitty.

Relax though, once those symptoms lift so do cognitive abilities however, reaction time remains slow ONE WEEK after the illness passes.  To circumvent this shortcoming drink caffeine which helps with alertness, even when you’re unwell.  As if I needed more of a justification to take in caffeine, now I can abuse this advantage when ill.  Although, who wants to be alert when feeling disgusting and grotesque? Pass the Nyquil and let’s increase those AcPb puppies so I can sleep through whatever is going on internally.

This topic was inspired by an inquiry submitted by Tamara from Tamera Camera Blog, if you have anything you’re curious about or have a topic you’d like me to research, shoot me an email or tweet me!

How is your week going? Has the influenza or cold bug got to you this season?

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21 Comments
  • Angela Gilmore
    March 18, 2015 at 4:31 PM

    This makes so much sense! I always feel more mentally drained when I am sick, and I always just thought it was just a weird emotional reaction. And the part about parenting boosting immune systems, I think we need to subtract the first year that they are in daycare or public school. I got the stomach bug five times in the Jack’s first year at daycare!

    Reply
    • AwesomelyOZ
      March 20, 2015 at 8:03 AM

      Oh wow! 5 times? Man he’ll owe you when he’s grown 🙂 Remind him of that! Something to throw in their faces, right? Well, just popping them out counts in my opinion. 🙂 I’m the same way, I felt like that two weeks ago and I wasn’t even very symptomatic but I still felt a depletion of cognitive function; just so out of it. Couldn’t organize thoughts and such. Thankfully, all clear! I took some Zicam and it helped a lot. 🙂 Happy Friday Angela and thanks for stopping by!! -Iva

      Reply
    • AwesomelyOZ
      March 20, 2015 at 8:06 AM

      Same here! It’s good to understand why and now I do. I came down with a bad flu early Winter (December) and was coming down with something two weeks ago but nipped in in the butt with Zicam and rest and tea. Which is good because I detest being sick – I hate not being able to breath. Lol. Hope your trip to Seattle was pleasant and glad you made it home OK! Spring is near and hopefully, no more viruses for a while! Nope, just allergies haha 🙂 Have a great weekend Christy and thanks for stopping by! -Iva

      Reply
  • Jen
    March 19, 2015 at 9:16 AM

    I always say “I’m a walking zombie” when I’m sick…because that’s exactly how I feel! Thankfully I haven’t gotten too much of the winter crud this year. I’ve been hibernating and hermiting in my house like a bitter little toad. I hate being sick, obviously, and even moreso because, as you addressed in your awesome post, I get stressed the fuck out. When I’m sick, the kids get sick, which means the man gets sick, which means I may as well be sick because he’s so damn whiny and negative. Plus none of my work gets done….I worry about money…..I dread getting out of bed because I don’t want to see how much shit has accumulated everywhere….it’s bad, man. And it does. It makes me feel way worse.

    So at least now I know it is a biological proof that the next time I get sick, I need to drink tea, do a light workout, and not try and think of excuses to think of only myself for a little while. HAHA

    Reply
    • AwesomelyOZ
      March 20, 2015 at 8:11 AM

      Lol ah the joy of a spreading virus – it’s interesting because I was sick with the flu earlier this winter but thankfully, my son didn’t catch it! Makes me happy to know his immune system is doing good, as is my boyfriend’s, it’s tough for either of them to get sick. I on the other hand, work with grotesque individuals who don’t even wash their hands in the restroom a lot of the times.. Or my immune system isn’t as strong; either way at least I just came down with something that one time and nipped it this second time around. 🙂 No one likes being a walking zombie! It’s not cute and I don’t like being all out of tune with what’s going on around me. LOL working out can help but also rest, rest lots! Yes, you have to be selfish and rest because your body needs to fight the virus and it can’t with you walking around worrying about money 😛 Glad you enjoyed this post Jennifer!! Thanks for stopping by and have a great weekend lovely -Iva

      Reply
  • Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri
    March 20, 2015 at 9:05 AM

    When I am down and out because of a cold, I still try to forge on with my regular activities. That is probably the worst thing to do, but it is hard for me to rest. It probably delays my recovery.

    Reply
    • AwesomelyOZ
      March 21, 2015 at 8:57 PM

      I see the allure of powering on, since many of us don’t like to fall back on activities and things still have to get done, but yes it will probably delay your recovery. You’re better off being out of commission for one or two days and letting your body rest 🙂 I’m sure it’ll take some adjustment but your body will thank you! Have a great weekend Rudri and hope you’re feeling well! -Iva

      Reply
  • Tamara
    March 20, 2015 at 5:46 PM

    Whee! My topic! My shoutout!!
    I once had a sinus infection while doing data entry – quite like I’m doing now, but I don’t have a sinus infection and I can’t imagine it.
    I used to treat colds as nothing – I’d still go on with my life. Now I treat them as really being sick. I find that it takes me longer to get better now that I’m older – either because I’m 34? Or because I’m parent and can’t rest when I want?

    Reply
    • AwesomelyOZ
      March 21, 2015 at 9:07 PM

      WOOHOO! 🙂 I try to give credit where credit is due, hehe. We’re going to go with you’re a parent and can’t rest when you want because 34 ain’t old, lol. You’re a healthy person and I’m sure your immune system is fine – so maybe your body is using the cold as an excuse TO rest? That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.. Lol.. I call off work and just hibernate. I will use any excuse to hibernate though, not gonna lie. 🙂 Bah I have work in an hour, at least classwork is done! Have a great weekend lovely! -Iva

      Reply
  • Rachel G
    March 20, 2015 at 10:31 PM

    Both Angel and I have been fighting colds ever since we got back to China–and yes, it has such an effect on brain power! Normally I’m always creating, writing, etc….but I have not at all been on top of my game lately. It’s interesting to hear the science behind why that happens.

    Reply
    • AwesomelyOZ
      March 21, 2015 at 9:51 PM

      Interesting, your body seems to be re-adapting to something; it’s probably worn out and needs rest! I find great stagnation in my creative process when I’m under the weather and it’s because cognition is impaired soo I just take a step back. You ought to as well, rest up and watch bad movies with Angel – eat gross red bean cinnamon buns Lol 🙂 Have a great weekend Rachel! -Iva

      Reply
  • GiGi Eats
    March 21, 2015 at 12:21 AM

    I haven’t been sick in years – and I have to say it’s all thanks to…. Quercetin and Vitamin D. I am sure you’re smacking your computer off your desk right now, LOL — but it’s a true story yo! Those two things have kept me healthy and kicking day in and day out!!!!! INVEST yo!

    Reply
    • AwesomelyOZ
      March 21, 2015 at 10:16 PM

      How the hell do you know about all these weird shit lady?!? WTF is Quercetin!? I’m googling now – First edamame pasta now this! STOP BLOWING MY MIND! Lol. I need to take VitD, my doc had me on VitD because I was low- I don’t get sick more than twice a year so it’s not HORRIFIC but I wouldn’t mind skipping a year. 😉 I will invest yo! Have a great weekend GiGi! -Iva

      Reply
  • Melanie
    March 21, 2015 at 11:12 AM

    Wow, this is crazy! Thanks for all of this information!
    Melanie @ meandmr.com

    Reply
    • AwesomelyOZ
      March 21, 2015 at 10:16 PM

      You’re welcome Melanie, hope you found it enjoyable! Have a great weekend and safe travels! -Iva

      Reply
  • Liz @ I Heart Vegetables
    March 23, 2015 at 7:57 AM

    I feel like I want to e-mail this article to everyone in my office and be like THIS is why you really shouldn’t come to work when you’re sick!! haha 🙂

    Reply
    • AwesomelyOZ
      March 26, 2015 at 9:18 AM

      LOL doo it! Knowledge is power. It also helps explain why you feel like ish – AcPb baby! I feel like I’m coming down with something but I’m not symptomatic so writing it off! I mean even if they wash their hands, it’s cool but seriously we have an office problem with people NOT washing their hands.. I’m happy I don’t deal with clients computers as much since they are SO DISGUSTING sometimes – what are people doing with their laptops?? Thanks for stopping by Liz and take care! -Iva

      Reply
  • Everygoodthingblog by Melissa
    March 23, 2015 at 8:40 PM

    I have not had the flu this year, thank goodness! (knock on wood) Although I have had a cold, and a perpetual runny nose! I think it’s probably the cold weather and the temperature that keeps changing… it’s like 50 degrees one day and then 14 degrees the next! Crazy! I hope you’re having a great week Iva!

    Reply
    • AwesomelyOZ
      March 26, 2015 at 9:32 AM

      You’re lucky! I rarely catch the flu but late last year it was a bad one – Thank God for sick leave! I got some much needed rest 😛 Omg Seriously the weather can’t keep itself together! Even today it’s going to be in the low 70’s which is just fantabulous and yet this weekend it’ll drop to the 40’s with possible light snow. What is this?! Lies! It’s Spring and hopefully it’ll start to act like it outside soon enough, the rain is already starting so eh, beats below freezing temps! I’m having a great week indeed and hope you are too Melissa! Take Care -Iva

      Reply

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