Leisure sickness killing holidays


It’s no fun being ill on holiday. So why do so many of us succumb every time we finally wind down? Cath is a lawyer. She regularly works 14-hour days, often takes work home with her and lives with a fairly constant level of stress. “Something always happens whenever I stop working. You have a totally manic period at work and then you stop, feel exhausted and come down with flu. ” she says This is a fairly typical example of what one psychologist has termed ‘leisure sickness’ - becoming unwell on holiday or at the weekend. Usually, the symptoms are cold or flu-like and include nausea, migraine, headaches and muscular pain. Professor Ad Vingerhoets, from the department of psychology and health at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, started researching the concept of ‘leisure sickness’.

After conducting his survey of more than 1,800 people, he estimated that around 3 per cent of people suffer from ‘leisure sickness’. “I think there are three main explanations for it,” says Vingerhoets. “It may be related to a change in habits during the weekend or on holiday, including more or less sleep, coffee or alcohol. Or that during work, our busy jobs direct the brain’s attention away from signals from the body, so when you go to a quiet setting, those signals are suddenly perceived and interpreted as symptoms. The third theory is that when you have been busy at work , your body stays ‘activated’ during the time when you should be resting.”

“When you are in a state of stress, your immune system will become depressed, leaving you susceptible to illness,” says Neil Shah, director of the Stress Management Society. “You rush around, and when you stop, your body is still reverberating from it. If you’re on holiday, you’re probably eating food you don’t normally eat, drinking more alcohol than usual, being in the sun or doing activities and your body might not be able to cope, which is why people get ill.” One of the most common symptoms of leisure sickness is migraine. Dr Anne Macgregor, director of the City of London Migraine Clinic, says it has been well recognised that migraine attacks frequently occur during downtime. “We think it’s a let-down response. Your body copes with stress because you can see the weekend or a holiday in sight. When people are operating under stressful conditions, they don’t tend to get a migraine attack, but they do tend not to sleep or eat properly, or they’ll drink a lot of coffee to keep them going and that can bring on a migraine later.”

Dr Sarah Brewer, a nutritionist also thinks prevention is better than cure. “Physical exercise resets the body’s fight-or-flight reaction,” she says. Brewer suggests boosting your immune system with nourishing foods and supplements. “Make sure you’re getting a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables.” Brewer also advises reconsidering where you choose to take your holidays. “ If you’ve been under a lot of stress, why fly a long way to the other side of the world? I recommend taking a holiday closer to home.