Coughing, Sneezing. Fevers and headaches. You know what that means: it’s almost flu season again. Every year, millions line up in the pharmacy to buy over the counter treatments and to get their annual flu shots. There are some people, though, who claim they’ve never had the flu in their lives. They claim they never get sick. How is that possible? People live in such close contact with one another (especially during the winter) that it’s a wonder not everyone gets sick. Could it be in their DNA? Do genes make people more prone to getting sick?
The Genetics of Being Sick
You’ve been laid up in bed for two days, wrapped up in blankets, eating chicken noodle soup, and watching reruns of M*A*S*H on TV. You’re sick. Who do you blame? Karen in Sales? Your kids? Your own immune system? These are all factors, yes; but, blame may fall to your genetics, too.
Doctors now suspect that your genes play a large role in whether or not you get sick. Professor Jean-Laurent Casanova of Rockefeller University suggests that a single gene helps determine why some people get so sick with the flu. This gene is pivotal in the creation of proteins that fight off viruses and other infections. The proteins, called interferons, are your immune system’s first line of defense when getting sick. When cells can’t produce them well, your risk of coming down with something like the flu increases.
This has led to further research into genetic interferon therapy. Up until now, doctors have used the therapy as a way to treat hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, and certain cancers. They hope that the treatment will one day act to the flu the same way diabetic patients receive insulin.
Recent research also explores the genetics of those with the healthiest predispositions. Experts hope that isolating gene mutations can shed light on what causes certain people to get sick. These studies are about more than curing the common cold. Volunteers have all stayed healthy even though they all have mutations proven to cause rare or severe inherited diseases. Looking at those people who should have gotten sick but didn’t may lead to revolutionary methods for treatments in the future.
It’s Not Just Your Genes
Getting sick is about more than your genetics. Myriad other factors affect how prone you are to infections. As anyone who has ever been in public knows, it seems like everyone is always sick. Disgusting as it seems, exposing yourself to certain infections actually boosts your immune system. Sickness is as much a social phenomenon as it is a medical one. The more contact you have with people, the better your ability to deal with viruses and bacteria. Studies have shown that when exposed to infections from others, children develop stronger immunities later in life. Even though they may seem sick all the time, this exposure helps children in the long run.
Psychology affects sickness just as much as biology. Your outlook on life can have a measurable effect on the way you battle infections. Optimistic people tend to have healthier coping mechanisms when faced with the tough stuff. Their positivity helps lower their cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress. Pessimism, on the other hand, has direct links to ill health. A study conducted at the University of North Carolina looked at sickness and negativity in subjects over the course of 40 years. What researchers found was that the pessimists had a 40% higher rate of death than the rest. Other studies have linked optimism with lower risks of infectious disease, cardiovascular problems, and cancers.
Stress and its effects cause dips in immunity, as well. High levels of cortisol wreak havoc on your body. The hormone can even influence your gastrointestinal system. When under stress, your body produces more digestive acids. These acids cause everything from heartburn to bloating and cramping. The effects don’t stop there. If you’re stressed on a regular basis, your sleep patterns suffer. Lack of sleep directly contributes to poorer health and higher risks of infection. Making sure your body gets enough rest is fundamental to avoiding illnesses.
Then there’s personal hygiene. This method of disease control has been apparent for generations. If you are dirty or don’t take care of yourself, you’re going to get sick. Handwashing, one of the simplest forms of disease control, decreases risks of certain infections by more than 50%. Your hands are everywhere. It stands to reason that keeping them clean should be your first line of defense against illness. Be sure to disinfect any surfaces that may have come into contact with a sick person’s hands, mouth, nose, or ears. Wipe down shared telephones, keyboards, refrigerator handles, and counters when you’re at work. Promote good hygiene with your family when at home.
No matter your chances of getting sick, remember to stay healthy, active, and safe. What are some ways that you try to prevent getting sick? Do you think genetics matter more than other factors when staying healthy? Does optimism help? Share your thoughts.