By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
For many, the year-end holidays are a celebratory time filled with friends, family, and food. But behind all of the merrymaking—or perhaps because of it—the holidays also can take a toll on your health.
Cardiologists have long regarded the year-end holiday season with apprehension, and have coined it “Holiday Heart Syndrome.” Sadly, there are more dead-on-arrival and emergency room deaths on December 25, December 26, and January 1 than on any other days of the year. Among the reasons why: dietary indiscretion and overeating, increased stress, loneliness or depression, delays in seeking medical care, and decreased compliance with medications.
Fortunately for most of us, the season won’t be so dire. Still, it’s not without risk. In this article, I want to focus on how you can manage three common holiday health risks: overeating / holiday weight gain, binge drinking, and holiday stress.
Eating to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain
First, some good news. The notion that holiday weight gain averages anywhere from 7 to 10 pounds is wildly overstated. You may feel 10 pounds heavier after a few days of bingeing on sugar-filled candy and baked goods, but research shows that actual weight gains tend to be much more modest—about a pound per person.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t gain more than a pound. You certainly can—especially if you don’t have a strategy for managing temptation. Here are two ways you can avoid holiday weight gain:
Eat regular meals.
Holiday events have a way of turning normal schedules upside down, which can lead to skipping meals, unhealthy snacking, and bingeing. Maintaining as regular a meal schedule as possible will help minimize these behaviors.
I recommend starting each day with a healthy breakfast, making sure to include some protein and healthy fats with each meal. Protein helps keep blood sugar levels on an even keel and fat gives a feeling of satiety, which means you’ll be less likely to overeat and gain weight.
Minimize sugary treats.
This can be a challenge when candy seems to be everywhere. But you must do your best to resist!
Too much sugar raises glucose levels in the blood, to which the body responds by releasing insulin. The rush of insulin brings blood sugar levels down, but the drop can leave you tired, irritable, depressed, and inclined to binge on more sweets. That’s not a cycle you want to be on if your goal is to avoid adding extra pounds.
Moreover, insulin is a potent inflammatory hormone that damages arteries and contributes to atherosclerosis.
The best choice is to strictly limit your intake of candy, cookies, and other holiday treats to just the occasional nibble (if you can’t resist completely). Try to combine the sweets with a meal or a handful of nuts or other high-fat snacks. The other foods will help blunt the insulin response.
Holiday Drinking Can Cause Weight Gain, Too—Or Worse
Food isn’t the only place you’ll find excess holiday calories. They’re also plentiful in the wine, beer, and other drinks served at many parties. Just one 5-ounce glass of red wine contains 125 of them. Two glasses, and you’ve downed 35 more than are in a Snickers candy bar!
The risks of holiday drinking are much more serious than weight gain, though. This time of year is notorious for bingeing. The relationship between alcohol and cardiovascular risk is complex, but binge drinking has been associated with high blood pressure, increased triglyceride levels, increased blood clotting, higher cholesterol levels, and arrhythmias—particularly ventricular fibrillation.
Add too much sugar or caffeine to the mix, and risk rises even more. A study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology suggests that bingeing on food and drink together can cause a surge in stress hormones. If this happens when someone is already stressed or excited—as we’re prone to be during the holidays—those levels can go higher still, triggering arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death.
Protect yourself by keeping the number of drinks you have to an absolute minimum. One for women, two for men. In this amount, alcohol has actually been shown to protect the heart. More, though, and you’re setting yourself up for trouble.
Managing Holiday Stress
This may be billed as “the most wonderful time of the year,” but the holidays also are one of the most stressful for some of us. As a cardiologist, I personally can attest that the holidays can be extraordinarily troublesome.
Finding the right gifts, juggling social engagements, traveling—all of these can fray nerves and raise blood pressure. But I worry more about stress that comes from strained or severed family relationships, separation from loved ones, and plain old loneliness.
During my years in active practice, I often found myself preparing for trouble with patients who’d lost a spouse during the year and were experiencing their first holiday season on their own. For some of them, “going it alone” transformed their holidays from happy to downright dangerous.
This sort of heartbreak, or loss of love, is a well-known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. One of the more recent studies on this topic found that people with poor social relationships had a 29 percent greater risk of developing heart disease and a 32 percent greater risk of stroke.
Coping with loneliness is not easy. One way to start, though, is to get involved in activities that create a sense of belonging. If you are religious, make a point of attending services and events. If not, consider volunteering with a favorite charity or getting involved with a community group. Taking the first step toward this can be difficult—but finding a common purpose with others can help offset feelings of isolation that tend to be amplified now.
Another way to reduce holiday stress and bring some joy to life is to give yourself the gift of a pet. Pets offer companionship and unconditional love to everyone, and especially to those feeling withdrawn, lonely, or grief-stricken.
Happy Holidays to All!
Above all, this time of the year should be one of connection with family and friends, and of giving and experiencing love. Keep mindful limits on what you eat and drink, but don’t put any limits on giving love. Reach out—and remember that we all have more to be grateful for than we may sometimes believe.
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- Lynch J. The Broken Heart: the medical consequences of loneliness (1979), Basic Books.
- Phillips DP, et al. Cardiac mortality is higher around Christmas and New Year’s than at any other time: the holidays as a risk factor for death. Circulation. 2004;110(25):3781-8.
- Parker-Pope T. The Skinny on Weight Gain. New York Times. 2007 Nov 22. Accessed November 29, 2016.
- Phillips DP, et al. Christmas and New Year as risk factors for death, Soc Sci Med. 2010;71(8):1463-71.
- Reedman LA, et al. Increases in heart failure visits after Christmas and New Year’s Day. Congest Heart Fail. 2008;14(6):307-9.
- Tonelo D, Providência, R and Gonçalves L. Holiday Heart Syndrome Revisited after 34 Years. Arq Bras Cardiol. 2013 Aug;101(2):183–189.
- Valtorta NK, et al. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart. 2016 Jul 1;102(13): 1009–1016.
- Yanovski JA, et al. A prospective study of holiday weight gain. N Engl J Med. 2000;342:861–867.
© 2016, 2019 Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.