by Tania Kazi
You’ve just finished writing your last exam and are downtown enjoying the evening with your friends, but as the night goes on you start to feel tired and sick.
It’s not a fluke! The phenomenon of illnesses popping up right after hectic life events, such as exams and midterms, is often referred to as the “let-down” effect. The let-down effect is a generalization that attributes high levels of stress to the occurrence of unanticipated sicknesses and is commonly exhibited after important events like weddings, competitions, or tests. There has been research findings on various health conditions that support this theory. Using self-report assessments and diary entries of patients who had headaches that were comparable in severity, Lipton et al. (2014) found that a sudden drop in stress levels is related to the onset of a migraine. However, the direct effect of stress on physiology goes hand-in-hand with the numerous psychological and routine variations it produces, thus contributing to post-exam sickness.
For example, it is very common to see people living in the library and drinking tons of coffee in order to stay awake during examination periods. This results in a great deal of sleep deprivation among students and manages to further increase their tension and stress levels as exams approach, giving rise to the let-down effect. Furthermore, sleep deprivation has been long known to lower immunity, and a 2011 study has actually shown that the immune system’s activity levels generally peak during nocturnal sleep, otherwise known as sleep that occurs while it is dark outside. Many other researchers have also revealed that nocturnal sleep helps promote immunological memory, which refers to the immune system’s ability to keep recollections of previous invaders the body has faced in order to make fighting them off easier if they ever reappear in the future. Therefore, a lack of sleep and a disrupted sleep schedule can drastically alter your body’s natural cycle, leaving you more susceptible to viruses and likely to feel down in the dumps at the end of the semester.
Moreover, stress-induced eating habits also tend to flare up during exam season which results in poor nutrition and overeating amongst students. A bad diet is typically linked to many major diseases in North America, and also results in low-energy levels and digestion problems in individuals. Specifically, poor nutrition has been related to the development of negative changes in the human gut’s natural environment; such as decreased biodiversity (types of bacteria) leading to a loss in some gut functions. This lowered biodiversity may, in turn, trigger the gut’s microorganisms to stray from their standard functions, activities, and population numbers in order to adapt to the new living conditions. Unfortunately, the consequences could include nutrient absorption issues in the digestive system and the increase of numerous deficiencies of biological necessities like vitamins and minerals. Additionally, a hormone called Leptin, associated with appetite levels in relation to body fat percentages, is severely decreased with the change in the gut’s bacterial environment. This change can result in a decrease in Leptin’s activation of macrophages in the immune system, which suggests that the system’s ability to destroy invaders maybe heavily impacted and the body becomes even more susceptible to illnesses. Overall, these findings show that bad nutrition can affect the immune system in ways that seem to increase the likelihood of a post-exam sickness materializing out of thin air.
However, there is still hope for this exam season, as you can decrease your chances of getting sick by getting enough sleeping every night, avoiding midnight McDonald’s runs, and minimizing stress levels as we head into exams. Only then will you be able to avoid falling victim to the notorious post-exam bug!
*If you are too overwhelmed by exams and would like to talk to someone or need to see a physician, there are resources on campus that can help.
Queen's Counselling Services
AMS Peer Support Centre
Queen's Health Services