The holidays are upon us and for most of us this brings joy, happiness, family, and fun. But for many, the holidays can also be stressful and exhausting. I know for me, it means added events, shopping, baking, and wrapping into an already busy schedule. With fatigue lowering your immune system, combined with an increased exposure to communicable viruses and bacteria, it is no wonder that many people find themselves sick towards the end or just after the festivities. There are steps to take to stay healthy all the way through and into January, however, and their commonality is simply remembering to take care of yourself.
Managing time can seem impossible this time of year, and too many people try to steal some extra time from the worst place possible: sleep! Your sleep is vital to your stress and immune response. Have you ever let a child get too tired and noticed that they became over-sensitive to every stressor? We have the very same stress response during fatigue as adults that we had when we were children, we just control our outbursts better (usually!). If you allow yourself to miss sleep and have subsequent variability in your stress hormone cortisol, you will inevitably lower your immunity. Imagine that child has grown to college-age. She just finished her finals and returns home for the holiday . . . and is almost immediately sick. Why? Her high stress and cortisol level kept her well during her finals while her stress remained high but once the stress was over, her immune system was left in a weakened and suppressed state, and now she is sick.
Robbing your sleep to finish your holiday to-do list will leave you in the same vulnerable situation. Furthermore, elevated cortisol levels will also make you gain weight in a much more efficient manner than that pumpkin pie can do alone. In addition to altering your cortisol levels, sleep can alter a countless number of health parameters. Therefore, don’t steal time from your sleep or youmight pay with your health. Adults typically need around 7-8 hours of sleep every night. Try your best to maintain consistent sleep/wake routine daily: going to bed around the same time and waking at the same time each day when possible. If you feel energized by a short nap during the day, make time to keep that ritual as well.
Your next holiday health goal: EAT. This one seems simple, I know, but too many people are stuck in habit of calorie counting and have the theory that if they are heading to the party later that night, they should just wait and save their caloric intake until then. This is also terrible for both your stress and immune system. If you let your body go into starvation mode, you will again be subjected to erratic cortisol, which, again, will suppress your immune system. Cortisol, in this case, will be released in an effort to keep your blood sugar from dropping too low. It will successfully serve this purpose, but your brain won’t be able to tell it apart from any other stress signal. As a result, you once again are in a higher stress, lowered immune state.
As a metabolism side-note, fasting will also signal to your body that you might be in a famine and signal it to conserve calories, especially when you do eat again, putting you into a category I like to call “efficient fat-storing.” So, please eat. It’s of course great if early that day of the party you eat well, with perhaps a whole grain cereal or oatmeal in the morning and a fresh, colorful salad with protein at lunch. These high fiber foods will get you to the party with satiety and balanced blood sugar, both of which will help you to make great nutritional decisions throughout the evening.
In addition to eating and sleeping, it is also important that you don’t totally miss out on your exercise. This one is the hardest for me as time gets crunched, but keep in mind it generally takes more time to recover from being sick then it does to maintain these healthy habits. If you can’t maintain your daily trip to the gym or pickle ball game, at least add small amounts of activity throughout the day. Many studies have shown equivalent metabolic and health responses to short bursts of exercise when compared to longer intervals. Park far away from the mall; take the stairs; add a set of squats, stretches, or crunches between the batches of cookies. Even small amounts of activity will help to control those cortisol bursts and thus strengthen your immunity (and your waistline will thank you after the holidays as well).
Finally, give your stress response and immune system a boost during the holidays through good supplementation. L-theanine, an extract from green tea, is a great, natural way to decrease anxiety that does not interact with other medications (including those for anxiety). It is very calming and for many can take the edge off all the additional holiday pressures, especially for those who feel stressed during this time.
Adrenal support (which comes in herbal and nutrient form) can be useful in helping to protect your body from the stress, and thus make it less likely that you end the season with an illness. These can be useful for anyone, even those who don’t necessarily feel anxious.
Immune support can be done with a variety of supplementation. I will often prescribe a mushroom blend, zinc, and/or Vitamin C. Also make sure that you are supplementing with a little extra Vitamin D for the season, along with a probiotic (good bacteria). You immune system will function better with moderated sugars, and keep anti-viral foods, including garlic, onions, and herbs high during this time of high exposure. If you start to feel ill, combine these foods into your favorite soup along with cayenne pepper or ginger, which will help to increase your circulation and decrease congestion.
The holidays are a great time of year, but for most of us, they are busy. Where there is busy, there is stress, and where there is stress, there is a flailing immune system. The solution is simple, however: maintain your normal healthy habits as much as you can. Sleep. Eat. Exercise. Take good nutrients. Do these things and you can enjoy the holidays…and maybe January too!
-Amy Whittington, NMD