The holidays bring abundant gifts, many of which are intangible. Love. Togetherness. Generosity. Faith. Family. Connectedness. Laughter. Joy. And, unfortunately for many, poor health.
While overindulging, under-exercising and stress can play out like the predictable holiday movie reruns year after year, poor health doesn’t have to be your story. You can change it. And for good reason, explains Gregory Baker, MD, family medicine physician at Primary Care East Lake, Florida Hospital North Pinellas Physician Group.
Common holiday health pitfalls
Believe it or not, your body does not know what the holidays are, or how to prepare for the barrage of things that this time of year tends to bring: extreme emotions, altered schedules, travel, heightened stress, overeating, changes in weather … the list goes on.
As a result, stress, depression, anxiety, weight gain and unhealthy coping mechanisms can leave many downright sick and tired.
Dr. Baker gets to the heart of the common holiday health pitfalls.
1. Mental health
“Mental health is a chief concern around the holidays. Some people can experience depression as they grieve family members lost years prior, face emotionally challenging anniversaries and have to adjust with changing family dynamics and routines. Anxiety can also develop because people are traveling or spending time with friends or family that they don’t have the best relationships with, or they’ve had difficulty with in the past.”
“The holidays are intended to be a time of happiness and celebration, but if you are finding that you are feeling angry, tearful or not feeling the same way that others are feeling around you, or are having any thought of self-harm, don’t delay in seeking medical help.”
Dr. Baker notes some other signals to speak to your physician about your emotional health:
- Overindulging in any unhealthy food or drink
- Lack of motivation to do things or your hobbies that are normally fun
- Difficulty getting out of bed, falling asleep or staying asleep
2. Diet and exercise routines
“The holidays are notorious for thinking it’s excusable to stray from your normal, healthy diet. From Thanksgiving through to the new year, there are more temptations all around — big portions, desserts, candies and opportunities to overindulge with foods that people normally don’t eat.”
Dr. Baker advises setting your boundaries before you head into the buffet line. Here are some of his tips.
- Make a food budget ahead of time, including what and how much you will allow yourself to eat.
- Share desserts, or only put half servings of higher calorie foods on your plate.
- Wait 10 minutes in between courses no matter what. This gives you a period of time to reflect and let food digest. Sometimes, you won’t want a second helping.
- Slow down and enjoy your food. Be the last one done with your plate, taking breaks to chat with a loved one instead of eating the whole time.
3. Changes in weather
“This is less of an issue in Florida, but weather changes can affect our psychology and physiology. In certain areas of the country, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a common problem. The time change reduces the amount of daylight exposure, which also causes many to be less motivated for physical activity, causing normal exercise routines to fall to the wayside.”
4. Delays in preventive screenings
“Many patients delay getting their routine screenings, like colonoscopies, pap smears and mammograms, during the busy holiday months. Some wait until the new year for insurance reasons, or because it’s more challenging to get appointments due to scheduling limitations. It’s important to work with your doctor and plan ahead, so you know if your screening can wait or you need to make the appointment and stick to it.”
“There is no better time than the present. Get your screening done and off your plate during the holidays, so you can use the time to celebrate and not worry about things you haven’t done or don’t know the answers to.”
Once more, it might be wise to get your screening before insurance deductibles reset in the new year.
The downside of New Year’s resolution thinking
Dr. Baker explains, “Most people are creatures of habit. If you are living a healthy lifestyle, it’s easier to maintain it [even during the holidays], than it is to adopt unhealthy diet and exercise behaviors and try to shift back to health. For every misstep today, it takes two steps tomorrow to reverse the damage. When you extend that a consistent number of weeks or months, the effort to get back on track is much greater. And as we get more mature in age, change becomes even more difficult.”
“Many patients have great intentions that on January second they will be back to the gym every night of the week and back to eating a healthy diet, but this is not realistic. So, I see January goals turn into September, and so forth until health goals just are not successful.”
The holidays are not a destination
Dr. Baker suggests this shift in perspective: “The holidays are not a destination, but a moment in time. For those that have been exercising and eating properly, before you participate in unhealthy activities remember to ask yourself: Do I really want to throw it all away for this moment?”
This is an important question because every decision you make has a physiological response in your body.
“Whether it’s due to weather changes or busy schedules, exercising less and increasing calorie intake can lead to weight gain, or more fat in the body. In turn, triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol can rise, and HDL (good cholesterol) can decrease.
With increased sweets and simple carbohydrates, blood glucose (sugar) can spike as well. And high emotional stress has additional negative effects on the body, such as raising blood pressure and chronic circulating stress hormones,” advises Dr. Baker.
Health challenges over the holidays are normal
“Be cognizant of the fact that the holiday season may bring physical and emotional changes. It is normal for this time of year. But thinking the holidays are an excusable time to put your health on hold is a mistake; instead, plan ahead, set your boundaries and prioritize your whole health. Above all, you will feel better and truly enjoy what the holidays are all about.”
And with that, there’s no greater gift that you could bring to yourself this season.