The Guardian


When the holiday season approaches, thoughts begin to turn to those few glorious weeks away when the only decision you will have to make is whether to dip your toe in the pool or head for the sand. For some of us, however, a shadow lurks on the horizon: that dreaded illness that always seems to strike on the first day.

But this is not another example of Murphy’s law. According to a report in Psychotherapy And Psychosomatics last year, what we may in fact be suffering from is “leisure sickness”. The journal published the results of an investigation led by Professor Ad Vingerhoets at Tilburg University in the Netherlands into why some of us seem to fall ill the moment we step off life’s frantic treadmill. Symptoms range from muscle pain, nausea and migraines, to flu-like infections and colds. The study found that most sufferers had a heavy workload, suffered from an “elevated sense of responsibility” or simply found it hard to switch off.

The theory is that your body’s defence mechanism works well when it is on high alert — that is, when you are stressed. Removing that pressure is an open invitation for a susceptible immune system to collapse. Never managing to relax completely means you are constantly experiencing stress and therefore “continually pumping yourself up with adrenaline,” says Gail Kinman, a psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of Luton.

In the short-term, this is fine; “it’s when people carry on and carry on and deplete their resources that they run into trouble.”

None of this is helped by the fact that it is precisely at times of stress that we pay less, instead of more, attention to our well-being. “A lowered immune system does tend to come from quite a long period of self-abuse,” says Kinman. “It’s almost a disease of overdoing it.”

So what can you do to avoid leisure sickness? When you’re up against it, don’t reach for junk food, says Beth MacEoin, a homeopathic practitioner and author of The Total De-stress Plan. She recommends increasing your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables: packed with antioxidants, these help to combat free radicals in the body.

Avoid caffeine if you have trouble sleeping, and go easy on alcohol and cigarettes — we may like to kid ourselves that they relax us, but they damage the immune system; a warm, lavender-scented bath will do more to help you unwind. If you’ve already burned the candle to its stump, MacEoin recommends a short course of nux vomica, a homeopathic remedy that counterbalances the effects of excessive alcohol, caffeine and the wrong kinds of foods.

Regular exercise is another long-term means of avoiding leisure sickness. It not only keeps the body strong, but, says Kinman, also “increases the flow of endorphins and helps to get rid of excess adrenaline.”

MacEoin also recommends taking echinacea for the last few days of an intensive period of work and the first few days of your holiday, to ward off colds and flu. Kinman, meanwhile, advises a settling-in period at home before your holiday; it may shave a day or two off your break, but it will reduce the mental and physical shock of the change in routine.