It may have a nice ring to it, but having “healthy holidays” can seem like an impossible task. For those of us past the age of staying up for Santa Claus, our to-do lists can feel longer than his list of names (and we definitely check ours more than twice). Between work and friends and family festivities, it’s no surprise we often find our health—both physical and mental—left waiting in the wings until New Year’s Day.
If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed during this time of year, you’re not alone—a previous survey by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) showed 63% percent of people report feeling too much pressure during the holiday season. That’s why this year Forbes Health spoke to a range of health experts to compile easy and applicable tips for prioritizing wellness and combatting stress this holiday season. From managing a healthy diet while still enjoying all of your favorite holiday cookies to creating space for your mental health amid the festive chaos, a healthy holiday season can be easier than you think. All it takes is a bit of balance.
Holiday Health Risks
The winter months are known for serving sickness on a silver platter. Pair frigid temperatures with irregular sleep cycles, fewer than the daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, one too many glasses of wine and a whirlwind social calendar, and you’ll find yourself sipping the perfect cocktail for a Christmas common cold. But a stuffy nose isn’t the only health risk at this time of year—the holidays can be hazardous to your health, affecting everything from blood pressure to your psyche.
The Christmas Holiday Effect
Research notes elevated rates of cardiovascular-based mortality over the late-December holiday period in the U.S.—something known as the “Christmas Holiday Effect” (though it applies to all holidays at this time of year). A 2016 study conducted by Journal of the American Heart Association tested the theory in New Zealand, specifically focusing on the link between the U.S.’s cold climate during the holiday season and the rise in cardiovascular deaths. The study found 4.2% more people die from cardiac events outside of a hospital between Dec. 25 and Jan. 7.
“The holidays are certainly a challenging time for patients with heart disease,” says Micah J. Eimer, M.D., a cardiologist, medical director at Northwestern Medicine Glenview in Glenview, Illinois, and 2021 Forbes Health Advisory Board member. “We definitely see an increase in patients presenting to the office and the hospital with issues related to fluid management, poorly controlled blood pressure and ischemic heart disease.”
The Christmas Holiday Effect is observed in countries worldwide. In 2021, Norway published a study noting elevated death rates connected to cardiovascular disease during the holiday period, and similar patterns were reported in Sweden and Canada as well. A 2018 study in Denmark found high cholesterol to be common after celebrating the Christmas holiday, and while further research is needed to determine a specific cause, experts suggest these conditions may be related to elevated heart rate, blood pressure, body weight, cholesterol, general cardiovascular disease risk and change in activity level, all of which are prominent in winter months in the U.S.
“Patients are eating out more, [they’re] going to holiday parties and there is more food around the workplace,” says Dr. Eimer. “All of this leads to increased intake of salt, carbs and alcohol compared to other times of the year.”
Delays in seeking care during the holiday season is also a suspected potential contributor. “Patients may downplay or ignore warning symptoms to avoid missing holiday events,” adds Dr. Eimer. “This also contributes to a significant bump in patient visits immediately after the holidays.”
Emergency rooms also experience the Christmas Holiday Effect, specifically in an increase of patients with psychiatric symptoms, including self-harm and suicide attempts. One study reported that while there is a decrease in psychiatric patients leading up to Christmas, a rebound seems to occur after the holiday. And though not all patients diagnosed with a mental health disorder find themselves in an emergency room at this time of year, 40% say their conditions worsen over the holiday season.
Finding Balance in Your Body
Sugar-based, rich, fatty foods have long been a part of holiday celebrations, and with them come the worry of holiday weight gain. A common stigma that Americans gain 5 pounds each year due to holiday indulgences has even made its way into scientific research—but it’s simply not true.
Contrary to popular belief, holiday weight gain is far less drastic than we think. In 2015, a study performed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services found the majority of participants experienced little to no weight gain (or loss) between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, even while making little to no effort to control their weight. In fact, the average weight gain recorded among participants during the holiday season was just 0.37 kilograms (about 0.8 pounds).
Stress can also take a toll on the gut. “When you’re stressed and anxious, you feel more bloating in the digestive system and discomfort. ‘Butterflies in your stomach’ comes from that,” says Freitas. Stress and anxiety can lead to symptoms like:
- Abdominal rumbling noises
- Abdominal pain
- Feelings of tension
- An increase in bowel movements, sometimes with pain
The good news is simple adjustments can help keep your gut health strong even while enjoying holiday fare. To find balance in your gut, Freitas and Leigh recommend trying these tips:
- Eat a small meal full of fruits and vegetables before you go to holiday functions. It will ensure you’re getting nutrients and that any festive foods being served won’t have as large an impact on your overall diet.
- Consume fermented foods, such as yogurt, kombuchas, sauerkraut and home-pickled vegetables in your everyday diet. Consuming fermented foods consistently and frequently can help with the minor digestion issues that come with heavy holiday foods.
- Exercise and move your body to help your blood pump and move food through your digestive system.
- Eat foods with fiber, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains to help move things through your digestive tract.
- Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated to help move nutrients through your body as well.
- Get enough sleep to support overall health and gut health. “A lot of repair and work happens in your body when you sleep,” says Leigh. “If you’re not getting enough, your body can’t rebuild. If you’re not getting enough sleep, it can also impact the foods you choose to eat, which can then impact gut health,” adds Leigh.
Another simple way Freitas and Leigh recommend promoting gut health this holiday season is considering the incorporation of probiotics. This type of good bacteria is proven to have a particular benefit in both gut health and immune-related functions. Probiotics can be consumed via foods or supplements, but Freitas prefers food over pills. Probiotic foods are able to buffer stomach acid, thereby increasing the chances of the probiotic surviving its trip through the digestive system. They also contain nutrients you won’t find in a supplement capsule, and they’re often more enjoyable to consume, which encourages people to eat them.
With that said, if you’re interested in washing down a probiotic supplement with your eggnog this year, Freitas and Leigh encourage you to research some brands to determine whether their products are backed by research when it comes to supporting gut and immune health. Next, pay attention to the names of the probiotic strains included in the supplement, which are typically a combination of numbers and letters—not just a type like Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. If you can find research supporting the benefits of the specific probiotic names on a product label, that’s even better.
Many people shopping for a probiotic supplement focus on the number of colony-forming units (CFUs) on the label, which indicates how many bacteria exist in a sample. However, more isn’t necessarily better. In fact, Leigh calls this “the kitchen sink approach.” “They throw a bunch of strains in there and get the numbers high, but that doesn’t mean it’s more effective.” Instead, focus on the specific probiotic strains and their research-backed benefits.
Even with a supplement, remember probiotics are not a magic pill for perfect health, but rather a part of the larger gut-focused effort to support overall wellness. Freitas and Leigh recommend taking a probiotic as an additional layer to your diet while also incorporating fermented foods and healthy lifestyle habits, especially during the holiday season.
Make Movement Merry
Between holiday travel and traditions, it’s easy to feel as though there’s no time for normalcy, especially when it comes to your fitness routine. With the pile-on of events and tasks to do before the holidays hit, it’s not shocking that Americans exercise less in winter months, least of all in December, according to a four-year study tracking American exercise habits.
But the holidays don’t need to be a time to send all physical health efforts down the drain. Established exercise routines can stay intact—and can even make you feel better.
The holiday season can demand flexibility, which makes maintaining routines difficult. But just because physical activity might look different during this time doesn’t mean you’re not reaping the same rewards.
“If you’re a photographer and you want to pick up a camera and take pictures of what fall or winter looks like to you, that’s movement,” says Coomer. “Anything that gets you off of your couch is helpful. It doesn’t have to look like how you think it has to look like. There are lots of different ways to move without plugging away at a gym.”
Walking is another easy way to move without equipment or classes. It can also be done in a group when time is tight and family activities take priority over gym sessions. Just grab your sneakers and go.
Credited to: Forbes