The Flu and The Blues: How Influenza Syphons Your Serotonin, and Other Unpleasant (But Beatable!) Things

Flu 2013 (PBS)

The winter of 2013 has been a particularly rough year for Americans, as reported outbreaks of various strains of the flu are continually being reported. Remember to wash your hands, break out the sanitizer, and try to do what you can to retain—or regain—your health.

It’s the height of the winter, and likely not exactly a thrilling time of year for most (particularly those who suffer from Seasonal Affective disorder). But there’s another reason it’s not such a merry season: this is precisely when the majority of Americans are in great danger of contracting the dreaded flu.

There’s really no doubt about it: having the flu is miserable. High fever (typically 100 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit) alternating with chills, and commonly accompanied by altogether unsettling nightmares; unrelenting head and body aches; extreme fatigue, weakness, or complete exhaustion; all manners of discomfort in the chest and throat; the inability to breathe well; and, if it’s a stomach flu, you get to add in constant vomiting and diarrhea, which can actually hurt one’s body as the muscles become incredibly tense.

And just to make the flu even better, it is constantly evolving; there are several strains, not all of which the vaccine comes anywhere near combatting; and the fact that NOBODY wants you ANYWHERE NEAR THEM. And certainly with good reason: During the period when the flu’s victim has chills/fever, the illness is highly contagious. So here’s a great way to make friends at work: If you come down with the flu, don’t think you’re being the office hero/heroine by racing into work. The smartest thing you can do is stay home (yes: quarantine yourself for a bit), to diminish the chances of spreading the virus to others. Trust me: your co-workers would much rather work a bit harder for a few days than be miserably ill because you just had to come in to file all of those charts.

2013 is turning out to be a very bad year for the flu indeed (including for yours truly, who is at home recovering this very moment). According to the Center For Disease Control, “Reports of widespread infection are now coming from more than 40 states; 2,200 people have been hospitalized; 18 children have died.” [See map, designed by PBS, for more details]

So what does the flu have to do with psychology? I went in search of this answer the moment I noticed a fairly significant jump in my depression upon contracting it—and how those feelings were challenging to shake, even while recovering. Naturally, I am far from the only one to make this connection.

An Unexpected Symptom: The Flu & The Depression

Dr. Mehmet Oz (of television fame a la The Dr. Oz Show) has pointed out that even “once the flu virus has run its course, you may still feel down in the dumps—and it’s not just because the laundry is two-feet high and you’re behind at work.” While these things certainly don’t help (of course!), it is important to remember— particularly for those already diagnosed with a Mood disorder, as these individuals are particularly susceptible to illness-related depression, that recovery necessities the body release Cytokines. According to The New England Journal of Medicine, “When the immune system is fighting pathogens, cytokines signal immune cells such as T-cells and macrophages to travel to the site of infection. In addition, cytokines activate those cells, stimulating them to produce more cytokines.” While the proper amount of cytokines can assist in fighting off the flu (they are typically kept in an appropriate, natural loop by the body), they also deplete one’s serotonin levels. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter and hormone, affects mood, memory processing, sleep, and cognition; and inadequate levels can result in physical and psychological negative outcomes, such as chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, the body’s inability to properly regulate its temperature, sadness, decreased self-esteem, social withdrawal, and irritability. Since cytokines deplete the body of serotonin while fighting illnesses, it is perfectly logical that depression—or depressive symptoms—can accompany or follow the flu, as it takes time for the body to restore itself to proper serotonin levels.

A [Very Short] How-To Guide: Dealing With The Symptoms & Bouncing Back From The Flu (Physically & Mentally)

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, and eating the right foods are essential in assisting one in one’s recovery from the dreaded flu.

Get Plenty Of Rest & Hydration. While you may be feeling a touch of cabin fever after being cooped up inside (and most likely, in bed) with the flu, it is extremely important not to push yourself too hard while you’re in recovery. Getting adequate rest is one of the best things you can do for yourself in order to make a rapid return to health—both physically and psychologically. And don’t forget to have a cup of tea (it helps thin out mucus and improve your breathing—and it’s delicious. Add a bit of honey to coat your throat if you’ve been coughing. It’s a fantastic natural pain reducer). And don’t forget to top it off with a steamy shower!

Go Ahead. Take a Pain Reliever. While many argue that this is simply masking the symptoms, why not mask those terrible symptoms? For fever reduction, and body and headaches, try Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen. For heavy coughing, pick up a medication that contains Dextromethorphan. For mucus and congestion, Guaifenesin works wonders for the chest, and Pseudoephedrine serves as a highly effective decongestant.

Make Sure To Eat Proper Foods (& Avoid Potentially Harmful Ones). This may be a little tricky if you’ve come down with the stomach flu, in which case you’ll probably want to stick to very bland foods, applesauce, bananas, yogurt, toast, and rice. Try to stay away from alcoholic beverages, anything too spicy (bummer, I know, but it’s important!), dairy products, meat, and super sweets items (i.e., sugar). If you don’t have the stomach flu but the standard nasty flu, you’ll want to avoid the same list of foods, but can also eat a wider variety of items, such as beans, spinach, nuts, legumes, kale, collard greens, broccoli, and cabbage, and citrus fruits

Boost Your B6 and B12 Intake. I learned firsthand what a critical role B vitamins play in helping to keep depressive symptoms at bay, and this especially true when one has just been through a serotonin-zapping illness. The Super B 100 Complex is what my psychiatrist so rightly recommended, and it has been an enormously essential adjunct to my medication—particularly vitamin B6. And remember, you don’t need to get it solely in pill form, as many common foods are packed with this vital vitamin, such as B-fortified cereals, baked potatoes, and bananas. Foods you’ll also want to keep handy for your health are apples and broccoli, too.

When You’re Ready, Get Outside. If you have the flu, it’s most likely not very warm out, and thus leaving your house may seem appealing theoretically, but not so much in reality. Nonetheless, mild to moderate exercise (e.g., a 30 minute walk, even if it has to be broken up into two or three parts!) has been proven to show major improvements for those suffering from depression or depressive symptoms. Remember, this is only once you’ve recovered from the initial symptoms—it’s important not to get discouraged or push yourself too hard too fast. You’ll be back to your old self again in no time!

REMEMBER: If symptoms of depression last for longer than two weeks after recovery, or are severe, contact a mental health professional immediately. Depression is a very real and potentially dangerous medical condition that one must seek help for as soon as it becomes clear it is a problem.