Holidays got you down? The festive season may be equated with love and cheer, but for many, the demands of these whirlwind months can be downright taxing. Here’s why there’s more stress, what it could mean for your health, and what you can do about it.
When a chill grips the air and Christmas items make their first appearance atop department store shelves, this can only mean one thing: the holidays are right around the corner. The “holiday season,” technically spanning the time between Thanksgiving and the New Year, is a time of personal reflection for most. While the pressure is on to bask in the holiday spirit, it is a far cry from joyful for a good many. This especially rings true for people who already grapple with anxiety and depression, with a recent study showing that 64% of people with mental illness report that the holiday season makes their conditions worse. Throw in a worldwide pandemic into the mix, and it’s no wonder that more and more of us are steadily on edge – in fact, emotional distress among Americans has more than tripled since the onset of the pandemic.
If you notice that your distress starts to peak this time of year, take heart. Whether you are busy making travel plans abroad for the holidays or preparing for a quiet, cozy retreat at home, there’s a lot you can do to tame your stress, keep your health goals on track, and still enjoy the festive season with your loved ones.
Why the holidays are not always so jolly
Many factors can contribute to the less-than-merry feelings we can experience as we approach the holidays, and these factors can impact not only mental health but also physical health.
Firstly, the holiday season can precipitate intense loneliness for those who’ve lost close friends and relatives or for those who suffer fractured family dynamics. Often our expectations of how we should be feeling during this time – immense gratitude for our good fortune – don’t match up with how we’re really feeling, leading to potentially crushing disappointment.
Of course, the holidays are also synonymous with copious feasting, namely sugary, high-fat, calorie-dense foods, drinks, and desserts. The Thanksgiving meal alone can easily break 3,000 calories and can even top 4,500 calories when you count the snacks and beverages enjoyed before and after. We feast on this food while sleeping less, moving less, and being stretched to the max emotionally. Unfortunately, this means that the holiday season can topple even the most well-intentioned health goals. For many people, the holidays are a time for letting down their guard and resigning themselves to filling up with all the unhealthy foods in their midst. For those who are health-conscious about weight gain and eating nutritionally in general, this departure in lifestyle, even a temporary one, can seriously sabotage the sense of control normally possessed – and result in a substantial amount of stress.
How holiday stress can show up in your body
No matter the month on the calendar, stress is an inescapable part of life and affects practically everyone from time to time. Experiencing stress is your body and brain’s way of responding to a threat of harm. You can feel stress on a routine basis, such as at work or school, due to a sudden negative change in your life or due to a past traumatic experience.
When confronted with a perceived threat, a so-called “fight-or-flight” stress response occurs. The brain’s hypothalamus sets off an alarm triggering a cascade of reactions involving all body systems, including the nervous, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, and musculoskeletal systems. Nerve and hormone signals stimulate the release of adrenaline and cortisol hormones, boosting your energy while increasing your heart rate and breathing rate and elevating blood pressure.
Usually, adrenaline and cortisone levels quickly return to baseline once the threat is perceived to have passed. But more concerning is when we find ourselves confronted with stress on a more long-term basis – such as during the holiday season – which can be associated with many pretty harmful effects to our health over time. For example, being overexposed to adrenaline and cortisone can put you at higher risk of digestive problems, headaches, muscle tension, insomnia, heart disease, anxiety, depression, and increased food cravings leading to weight gain.
Gaining weight during the holidays
It’s a widespread belief that it is common to gain five to 10 pounds during the holiday period from Thanksgiving through New Years Day. Fortunately, the research doesn’t substantiate such a large amount gained – on average, we gain much less – but it is undeniably true that we do see a jump on our scale during the holidays. One study followed the weight patterns of 165 subjects over 12 months and found that while the weight gained during the six-week holiday season amounted to only 0.7 lb, the subjects gained 1.3 lb total over the 12 months, which means that the 0.7 lb gained during the holidays were more than half of the weight gained for the year. The excess calories consumed certainly play a role in this, but research also shows that facing stressful events is strongly associated with being overweight, having an elevated body mass index, and gaining weight. This is partly a result of more significant amounts of glucose and insulin that circulate in the bloodstream.
Tips for staying healthy this holiday season
The holiday season can no doubt rattle even the best, triggering stress, anxiety, and depression. This reality may especially hold true for those of us struggling with the threat of weight gain amidst food-filled celebrations. But we should take comfort in the fact that we are still in control. There are steps we can take to ease our mental burden and help us cope with and actually enjoy the busy season ahead.
Consider a fasting regimen
Intermittent fasting may not seem like the ideal approach during the season when you seem to spend more time at holiday parties than at the office. Still, there are several good reasons why you should incorporate it into your holiday plans if staying healthy – while not depriving yourself – is your goal. There are many ways to fast, but one of the most popular intermittent fasting methods is the 16/8 practice, which involves fasting for 16 hours and only eating during the remaining 8. Practically speaking, this means simply not eating after the big holiday meal and skipping breakfast the next day. Fasting for around 12 hours after a meal leads to the depletion of glycogen in the body and causes the breakdown of fats into fatty acids converted by the liver into units called ketones which the body relies on to provide fuel for the body and brain. This process is called “flipping the metabolic switch,” which happens when our metabolism shifts from storing fat to burning fat to supply the body with energy.
This switch can also be helpful during the holidays when we ingest way more calories than we’re used to. Many studies show that intermittent fasting can help prevent weight gain, and can even promote weight loss. One particular study analyzed how a 16/8 fasting pattern affected weight among a group of men over 8 weeks. The results showed that those placed in the fasting group saw a decrease in their fat mass compared with those who did not fast. Another study showcased the promotion of weight loss by fasting, revealing that fasting on alternate days between 3 and 12 weeks can drop body fat by 6.6 lbs to 12 lbs and a reduction in body weight by 3% to 7%.
Intermittent fasting is usually most associated with weight loss, but it is also shown to increase insulin sensitivity, boost heart health, and improve cognitive health. In addition, fasting can keep our minds sharp and prevent the brain fog and sluggishness we might otherwise feel after eating high-fat, processed foods. Research shows that intermittent fasting can improve energy levels and our cognitive function by optimizing brain structure, learning, and memory preservation. Most importantly, fasting keeps us less fixated on the food on the table and more focused on what matters most of all – engaging in meaningful conversations and making memories with those we love.
Use Biosense to keep tabs on your ketones
An essential part of successfully adopting any new healthy lifestyle plan is to keep close track of how your behavioral changes impact your day-to-day health. If you follow a fasting lifestyle, the handheld Biosense device can let you know in real-time whether you are in nutritional ketosis and for how long, in an accurate, minimally-invasive way. With a simple breath measured 3 to 5 times a day, you can see firsthand how even small changes to your diet and exercise routines impact your metabolism. During the holidays, you’ll likely be tempted with a more vast array and quantity of food than you’re used to eating, making it even more critical – and challenging – to know exactly how the foods you’ll eat will affect you metabolically. Measuring and monitoring your ketone production during this busy time will help ensure you can preserve the benefits you’ve enjoyed the rest of the year.
Build a solid eating game plan
Whether you choose to fast or not, it is always smart to solidify a plan of how you will eat heading into the holiday season. Avoiding overeating is probably the most challenging of all when it comes to managing our weight this time of year. To keep yourself from overindulging, drink a glass of water, coffee, or tea before a big meal to keep you full, eat a healthy snack before sitting down at the table, and choose a smaller plate to keep your portion sizes manageable. If there is a buffet, stick to just one trip through. If you’re fasting, knowing how to best fuel your body during your eating periods is vital. Fill your plate with nutritious whole foods, emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lean meats.
Prioritize your exercise
Each minute may feel packed during this hectic time, but don’t let the days get away from you without any movement. It is more important than ever to ramp up your exercise to keep you relaxed, release endorphins, and burn off those extra calories. Can’t get to the gym? Consider even just a 10-minute walk outside around the block, a quick yoga session in your living room, a HIIT workout available on YouTube, or a few minutes of stretching periodically throughout the day.
Take a break from social media
When your feed is jam-packed with smiling faces of families in matching PJs, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the comparison game – and feel disappointed with your own family dynamic. Having a front-row seat to others’ opulent material purchases doesn’t help us feel any better. If you find yourself habitually scrolling while observing your plummeting mood, it is time to step away. Taking a social media break will restore a sense of calm, improve your sleep, and allow you more time to focus on other more worthy areas of your life.
Learn to say no
Trying to be all things to all people at the expense of your own well-being is the essence of “people-pleasing,” and it is a toxic habit you’re best throwing to the wayside. People-pleasing at any time of year is worth overcoming, but with so many tasks to cross off your list in such a limited amount of time, saying yes to every request is a surefire way to reach burnout and resentment. Learn to kindly but firmly put yourself first by saying a simple, “I’m sorry, but I can’t help today.” This is an effective way to set up healthy boundaries around your time and effort.