You could keep a holiday diary to record each time you were stressed, felt joyful or snuck in a little indulgence — an extra meal or a chocolate treat there. Or you could get a routine blood test to check up on your cholesterol, blood sugar and immune system.
Chances are, the tale told by the diary and your lab results would share a theme.
The holidays are a time of togetherness and love, but they can also wreck our routines and healthy habits.
If, like many of us, the holidays leave you feeling rushed, spread thin and tired, you may be compromising your health. And even if you can hide your stress from friends and family, you can’t hide it from a lab test.
Your thoughts — including your stress, worries and, yes, your joys — can nourish your body or weaken it. Studies have shown that stress can undercut our immune system and even slow our recovery from injury.
The reverse can be said for getting in the holiday spirit. Generosity, love and human connection have a direct and measurable effect on our body.
In one study, 128 older adults with high blood pressure were given $40 a week for three weeks. Half were told to spend the money on themselves, and the other half were told to spend it on others.
Those who gave the money away experienced a significant reduction in blood pressure, an effect those who spent the cash on themselves didn’t experience.
The holiday spirit — the notion that it is better to give than to receive — can have a real impact on your holiday health. All of these interconnections raise possibilities: Changing your habits of mind and brightening your spirit can re-write the story of your health.
Here are some tips on how to get started.
A de-stress call
It’s as impossible to avoid as it is to predict. Whether it’s from money worries, a strained relationship or the pressure of finding a thoughtful gift for everyone, some stress is natural.
But when stress becomes constant, it can damage virtually every part of the body. Its symptoms could show up on routine testing in a number of ways.
Stress can cause high blood pressure, in part because of the adrenaline that it produces, according to the American Heart Association. Stress may also lead you to indulge in an unhealthy diet, too, which can also damage your blood vessels.
Your worries could also show up in your blood test through what’s called the Complete Blood Count. This measurement of your blood cells, including white blood cells, can show how active your immune system is.
Research has repeatedly found a link between stress and the immune system. In one study, researchers inflicted tiny wounds on healthy volunteers. The volunteers who reported the most stress in a survey took twice as long to heal.
- Be pragmatic: Be ready to change your traditions as your family changes. Take this hypothetical example: As long as you can remember, grandpa has made an extravagant Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps, though, this is the year to adapt your tradition by ordering out for some or all of the meal.
- Plan for delays: There’s plenty of unavoidable holiday travel stress. But some of it can be eased by preparation. For example, allowing for plenty of travel time — in the air and on the ground — will help you stay calm about the inevitable delay.
- Give to receive: About 20 years ago, the writer and volunteerism expert Allan Luks introduced the term “Helper’s High.” He describes it as “the powerful physical feelings people experience when directly helping others.” A 2012 study in Detroit found that helping others reduced the likelihood of death specifically through the reduction of stress. Like much research, it confirms rather than surprises: We already knew that generosity is like food to the soul.
- Be a cheerful giver: Imagine you’re asked for a favor. Sometimes, we have to decline these requests out of respect for our time and health. But when we have time to help, it’s best to agree wholeheartedly. As the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Your friends and family will appreciate a cheerful giver, too.
- (Un)cooling your heels: A bright sunny day can beckon one to exercise as effectively as a bone-chilling wind can keep one indoors. For many of us, lousy weather can signal an end to the healthy habits we painstakingly cultivated in warmer times. But it’s even more important to stay active over the holidays. Exercise can burn off some of the extra calories while releasing feel-good chemicals called endorphins that alleviate stress. Consider exercising at home — there are free workout videos available online to give you some direction. Equipment like an exercise bicycle or a treadmill can help. If your motivation is waning, consider recruiting a buddy to keep you honest. Plus, if you know their health is on the line, too, you may be more likely to get moving.
Holiday eating tips
For many of us, food and family go together like sandals and the beach. You could no more change your family’s culinary traditions than you could change the weather.
But you can prepare for these challenges — and compensate for them. The Centers for Disease Control offer these tips:
- If your meals are served later than normal, eat a small snack to keep your blood sugar steady. Then eat a little less at dinner.
- Bring a healthy dish if you’re invited to a party.
- Compensate for that treat by cutting back on carbs like potatoes and bread during a meal.
- Don’t skip meals ahead of a feast. Your hunger will raise the odds of overeating.
- You’ll slip up, but don’t give up. Get back to it with your next meal.
- At a buffet, take a small plate of the food you like best, then move away from the table.
- Eat slowly. It takes at least 20 minutes for your brain to realize you’re full.
- Choose the favorite foods you can’t get any other time of year, and savor a small serving
- Get your sleep. Going without it can make it harder to control blood sugar, and sleepiness ramps up our hunger for fatty, sugary food.
You could probably guess that the word “holiday” comes from “holy day.” But “holy” itself comes from the Old English word “hāl,” which meant to be whole or complete.
The word today is typically associated with a higher power, but holiness can also be thought of as being complete. That means paying attention to the links among your body, mind and spirit. If the holidays are about togetherness and love, then we should take their opportunity to be whole.
At Florida Hospital, whole-person health is at the core of our care philosophy. Visit CREATIONHealth.com to learn more about the eight principles that define the way we care for body, mind and spirit.