Ep. 57 – When Your Brain Needs a Sick Day

Like with most disruptions, there’s never a good time to be sick. But it really stinks to get sick on vacation. That’s what happened to me recently and, as my huskier voice indicates, I’m still on the mend. 

I often close each episode with the sentiment to take good care and this wellness wish is the focus of today’s topic. Whether it’s a quick cold or a more serious illness, being physically unwell can also have significant impact on our mental wellbeing. 

What happens in the brain when the body is sick and how exactly can we take good care when we feel anything but good?

For the Bottom Line on Top of this episode, I’ll share a timely quote that says: If you don’t pick a day to relax, your body will pick one for you.  

Boy did this ring true as I’ve spent several days frustrated by the fatigue of all this germ-fighting. I used some of my sideline time to dig into the brain science behind being sick. Thanks to some assistance from my AI sidekick, ChatGPT, I’ve outlined a few nerdy things of note:

The first thing that I learned, and that was super validating is that there is such a thing as a brain fog. In this case, it’s called neuroinflammation

When the body is sick, the immune response triggers inflammation in both the body and brain. Neuroinflammation happens when immune cells are activated in the brain and studies show it contributes to symptoms that we feel when we’re sick like fatigue, cognitive impairment, and even mood. I can personally attest to all three of those things. 

Part of this fog also affects our attention, memory, and decision-making. Have you ever tried to go grocery shopping while sick? The physical act of getting there is one thing, but trying to make a decision on what type of food or cold medicine you need can feel extra extra. 

Part of this has to do with our neurotransmitters, which get sluggish when we’re sick. 

Why is this important? Because neurotransmitters deliver critical hormones and biochemicals that keep us humming along. For example, two key hormones that they distribute are serotonin and dopamine, these are both key to our sleep, appetite, motivation, and energy – all of which take a hit when we’re sick. 

Now shifting over to the good news front, I also learned that our brain and body have their own chat channel that serves as a special walkie talkie when you’re sick. They communicate bidirectionally through various pathways in your brain. 

The brain receives signals from the immune system via specialized cells in our central nervous system called microglia. These super cells can detect infection or inflammation. They are constantly monitoring the microenvironment and are able to send a rapid response to the brain about any signs of illness or injury. From there, the brain alerts the immune system to kickstart a response-all systems a go. 

So, yes, brain fog is real. But when you’re in it, your body has a built-in communication system to call in extra support. 

Okay, let’s shift from biology to psychology. 

While prevention is always easier than a cure, what can we do for our brain when we are sick?

The first thing is to accept the slowdown. In our go-go world, that’s really hard to do. But there are no shortcuts to wellness (no matter what the cold medicine marketing tells us). 

Give your busy brain an out-of-office notice. Look ahead to the next few days and cancel plans in advance. Clearing your calendar also clears your cognitive load. Time to rest is a gift we give to ourself and not sharing germs, well that’s a gift we give to others – and one that is happily accepted. 

Speaking of rest, sleep is one of the core ingredients for recovery. Episode 29 outlined how sleep is a superpower. It also plays a key role when you’re sick because the body filters toxins faster when you’re sleeping. As you draw on the power of your immune system, the body needs time to refuel it and it does that when you are resting. 

While I hope this episode finds you well, I hope it also gives you some extra mental vitamins for when you are not. 

The best wealth is good health, which is my wish for you as well as a reminder to take time to make time to take good care. 

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.