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6 ways to stay healthy in a stressful job

6 ways to stay healthy in a stressful job

I’ve been sick lately. A stomach bug, a cold, a cough … As a mom of two and coworker of many, I know this is inevitable, and yet most of the time I am able to bolster immunity with vitamins, Chinese herbs, and extra sleep—and fight it off. I hardly ever miss a day of work because of my own illnesses. So this recent bout of yuck got me thinking about why we get sick when we get sick. (My boss had pneumonia for several weeks recently, too.)

For me, work stress plays a critical role. You’re so busy being busy (translate: body in the flight-or-fight mode) that you’re literally too busy to get sick. But once that stress lets up just a little bit? … Watch out! Here comes the yuck. In fact, the immune system is temporarily bolstered by acute stress. For example, research shows that people undergoing a stressful exam or giving a public speech have higher numbers of killer cells after the event. The opposite has been found with long-term stress, which research shows suppresses immunity.

Short of living a stress-free work life—or one punctuated only by occasional acute bouts of stress over a deadline or meeting with influential persons—here are some ways that I typically stay (mostly) healthy while succeeding at a stressful job.

  1. Drink tea. All types of true tea (derived from the Camillia sinensis plant) contain ample amounts of the amino acid L-theanine, which aids the immune system’s gamma delta T cells. Green tea’s polyphenol EGCG also boosts T cells and acts as an anti-inflammatory agent.

  2. Keep Yin Chiao in your drawer, a go-to Chinese formula for pumping up immunity when you need it most: when you feel like you’re getting sick, if everyone around you is ill, or when you know you’re going into germy territory (e.g. just before and during travel).

  3. Take a walk every day. Exercise boosts mood by stimulating the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Getting sunlight, important for vitamin D (though you should probably take a supplement, too) also increases mental well-being during winter months and helps regulates the body’s circadian rhythm (sleep and waking patterns) and melatonin production; melatonin plays a role in immunity and has been shown to protect against certain cancers.

  4. Eat more soup. According to Chinese medicine, eating too many cold or raw foods during the winter taxes the body, which becomes depleted from having to work hard to digest these foods. Soups are ideal—they gently nourish the body with easy-to-digest and –absorb nutrients. Include garlic, ginger, and beta carotene-rich carrots, sweet potatoes, or winter squash for extra immune punch. Try these immunity boosting recipes.

  5. Turn on the parasympathetic nervous system (PSN). Activating your PNS turns off the flight-or-fight response and tells the body that it’s time to “rest and digest.”  Practicing yoga, tai chi, or meditation can help boost immunity by down regulating the stress response. Training in mindfulness, such as meditation, allows mind and body to naturally “reset” in daily life.

  6. When you get sick, rest. It’s hard to turn off in our 24-7 society; I get well over 100 work-related emails per day and am almost never without access to that account. Bottom line: It’s easier than ever not to rest, and so it’s vitally important to give yourself the gift of reprieve when your body needs it most. Although I felt like garbage last Friday, the day I spent partially in bed, staring at the window watching branches dance in the wind was one of the most nourishing days I’ve had in a long time.

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