I hope you are enjoying the holiday season, because we are in the thick of it now. If not, relax. It will only be a few more weeks.
Last Thursday, my friend, Kathy Feinstein did an amazing job teaching us about the health implications of isolation and loneliness at our Fundamental Foods and Friends Dinner. It might not sound like much fun, but it really was powerful. She did a great job, and it was so timely. The holiday season can be an emotional rollercoaster, especially when we are separated from loved ones.
While we often talk about the emotional pressures of the holidays, we don’t always connect the dots to the physical implications of those stresses. On this week’s “Wellness Wednesday,” I want to give you some practical tips that can help you stay healthy and strong all the way into January.
Manage Your Stress
This might seem like a strange one to start with, but hear me out.
If you’ve lived through more than one Christmas season, you know how hectic the month of December can become. It would be one thing if it were just end-of-year work pressures like sales quotas and financial reporting, but we all know that’s not it. There are parties to attend (or plan), meals to prepare, snacks to bake, gifts to buy, shopping to do, concerts, extra church services, more parties, flights and road trips, and on and on it goes.
That being said, we need to be aware of our stress load as we go through the holidays. All this extra activity can lead to some late nights, early mornings, and indulgent eating. Tack on the emotional weight of our holiday expectations (and the corresponding weight of unfulfilled expectations – remember our last series), close quarters, cool weather, and we could be setting ourselves up for a rough end of the year, health-wise.
Not All Stress Is Bad…Or Good
I think most of us associate stress with bad things, so we don’t think about the holidays as being stressful. Maybe we think it’s a good kind of stress, so somehow, it doesn’t count. Some stress is necessary for a healthy life, but out-of-balance stress — whether we associate it with good feelings or bad feelings — can damage your body if it’s not dealt with properly.
As I’ve shared before, neurotransmitters like adrenaline and cortisol are necessary at certain times of our lives, but they are caustic, like acid. They are meant for short bursts when we need them. The problem is that so man of us leave the faucet open, and that can damage our vital organs over time. The “fight or flight” response mechanism is not meant to be a lifestyle. Just an extra boost in a pinch.
One of my good friends is a singer in another state, and he tends to get a lot of gigs around the holidays. He loves to sing — he’s a natural-born entertainer — and he enjoys every moment of each performance, but when he’s done, he is absolutely spent, and he often pays the price for it the next day.
He recently told me that he could barely move the morning after one of his shows. The rush of neurotransmitters, plus cold air going back and forth to his car, plus shaking hands with about fifty people after the show, set up his immune system for a hit. Also, he didn’t tell me this, but knowing him, I’d be willing to bet that he partook of some of the sweets after he was done singing, too.
Even good stress can wear down your body and leave you vulnerable to a virus assault.
Your body is up to 70% water, and all of your vital systems, including all of the functions of your brain, require plenty of water. Your immune and lymphatic systems need water to flush out toxins. If you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. If your immediate response to thirst is coffee, tea, alcohol, or soft drinks, you are actually making the situation worse. All of those liquids dehydrate you more.
It’s easy to get busy in December, especially if you are in charge of putting on a Christmas pageant, a party, a concert, or a fundraising project. If you are traveling across time zones to be with family and friends, you have to be extra careful about your sleep patterns. Sleep is the time when your body resets itself, including your immune system. That’s why your grandma recommended a long nap when you were fighting the flu. Part of getting enough sleep is preparing your body to enter the sleep process. I recommend you avoid caffeine and other stimulants for at least four to six hours before you go to bed, avoid sugar for at least four hours before bed, avoid alcohol for at least three hours before bed, turn off the TV and other blue-light-emitting devices (computer, smartphone, etc.) at least one to two hours before bed. That allows your brain time to settle down.
Limit Your Sugar
At Thanksgiving, I gave you my permission to eat whatever made you happy, as long as you were willing to accept the consequences for how it would make you feel in the morning. Now, I want to urge you away from sugar as much as possible. If your immune system is like an army defending your body, sugar is like a whole family of Godzillas driving tanks into battle. Sugar suppresses your immune system long enough for viruses and germs to take up positions in your body and create havoc.
I realize that most of our holiday fun traditions are tied to sugar. I get it. I really do. I don’t want to be the Grinch. Please use some common sense and limit your portions, especially as you get older.
Also, I find it is helpful to follow up a day of cookie bingeing with 2,000 – 4,000 mg of Vitamin C. Some people buy bulk ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) powder and dissolve 1,000 mg of it into eight ounces of water every fifteen minutes as they are getting ready for bed or getting up in the morning. There have also been studies where people took 1,000 mg of ascorbic acid powder every fifteen minutes until they had diarrhea. That is called a “Vitamin C flush” and, while it can be very effective for helping your body fight infections, it’s also highly controversial.
This also leads to my next tip for healthy holidays.
Make Good Food Choices
Nothing makes you feel safe and familiar like comfort foods — those favorite, fatty, sugary foods that Grandma used to make — and no other time is defined by the presence of comfort foods like the holidays. Imagine Thanksgiving without turkey and stuffing. Imagine Christmas without cookies and candy.
I don’t pretend that normal people don’t eat sugary or fattening treats at the holidays. I may be a healthcare provider, dispensing wisdom about healthy eating choices, but I’m not naive. People eat what they love, especially at the holidays, and some of our strongest emotional anchors are tied to memories of sweet and fattening foods. It’s OK. No judgment here.
I’m not going to tell you that you can’t have your favorite holiday goods, but to keep from spending your Christmas vacation in bed, I encourage you to complement your holidays favorites with some of the same good food choices you make the rest of the year: fresh vegetables, dark leafy salads, sweet potatoes (great for Vitamin A and C), pumpkins and other gourds, fresh fruits, and good fats, like avocado, pecans, macadamias, and coconut oil.
Avoid White Foods
At the same time, avoid anything white: milk, cheese, bread, rice, sugar, and flour. (As if, right?). Nothing is creation is white, except snow. White foods are invariably processed to death. White milk has all the good lactobacteria strains removed. White bread has all the best parts of the wheat removed. White sugar is a poison that tastes good. These foods are empty, with no nutritional benefit at all. Do you know who benefits from these empty molecules? Cancer. White foods are what cancer likes to eat.
There is a fast-growing body of research (as well as a bunch of your neighbors who bought into an MLM) that demonstrates the anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, and anti-fungal properties of several essential oils. Among these are oregano, tea tree oil, frankincense, thyme, lavender, and cedar.
Some people rub them on their hands, feet, or throat. Others put a few drops in a cup of steaming water and breathe in the steam for up to 15 minutes (warning: oregano will make you feel like you swallowed fire, but it is amazingly effective). In both cases, the premise is that the molecules of these oils soak into your skin or the tissues of your throat and combat virus cells. It helps that most of them smell nice, so you can wear them on a crowded airplane and the people around you won’t gag.
This is also one of those topics that reinforces my belief that most of the major advancements in health and wellness emerged thousands of years ago, and we have been gradually unlearning them since about 1850. Our ancestors used herbs and roots to combat disease, and we think we’re so smart because we use chemicals with destructive side effects. But that’s a rant for another time.
Wash Your Hands
Unless you’re six and you stumbled onto this article on your mom’s phone, this should be pretty obvious. The civilized world has understood the importance of washing your hands with soap and hot water since about 1880, so I assume you’ve heard this at some point. That doesn’t mean everyone does it. Antibacterial hand wash is a nice supplement, but it’s not a substitute. Wash your hands, and avoid touching your face as much as possible. You would be amazed at how many viruses gain traction with people because they touch their faces, rub their eyes, or scratch their noses unconsciously. Those are the most exposed and vulnerable places on your body where viruses take root.
Keep A Healthy Gut
Since over half of your immune system is housed in the bacterial colonies in your intestinal tract, it’s important to keep that flora healthy and strong. I encourage my patients to take a daily probiotic supplement, eat probiotic foods like sauerkraut and kimchi (or yogurt for you newbies), and keep your gut alkaline. One easy way to do that is with a simple drink that you can take daily:
- 8 oz warm water (not too hot)
- 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp raw, local honey
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp turmeric
- (some people like to add 1 tsp cayenne pepper)
This is a powerful antioxidant, with tons of good enzymes and good bacteria to help your gut. It will also balance your blood sugar and your blood pressure. It has a very strong taste at first, but you’ll learn to love it, especially when you see how it makes you feel.
I hope this is your best holiday season ever! It’s my first without my dad, so my family and I are processing a lot of extra emotions right now. If you are in a similar season of your life, my heart goes out to you. I will be praying alongside you.
No matter where your holiday takes you (physically and emotionally), follow these simple tips and let it be your healthiest holiday ever. After Christmas, I have some exciting things to talk about, but we’ll get to that later.
“May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.” — Irving Berlin