For many, the end of the year is a celebratory time filled with friends, family, festivities, and often, too much food and drink. For others, it is a time of amplified gloom, of loneliness, depression, and stress.
How to Stay Healthy During the Holidays
Cardiologists have long regarded the year-end and year-start holiday season, beginning at Thanksgiving, with particular apprehension. In recognition of heightened cardiovascular danger, they have even coined terms like “Holiday Heart Syndrome,” “the Merry Christmas Coronary” and the “Happy New Year Heart Attack.”
It may surprise you to know that there are more dead-on-arrival and emergency room deaths on 12/25, 12/26, and 1/1 than any other days of the year. Among the leading reasons for these seasonal spikes are dietary indiscretion and overeating, increased stress, delay in seeking medical care, and decreased compliance with medications.
In this article, I would like to address two of these common risk situations that can ruin the holiday and even lead to death: overeating and loneliness.
At holiday time, people often get caught up in the celebratory fervor. Sticking to a healthy diet often flies out the window. Did you know that from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, American adults gain anywhere from seven to ten pounds? The cause: too many carbohydrates – including sugar − that becomes stored as fat.
As a general rule, I always advised my patients to eat regular meals, starting with breakfast, and include some protein at each sitting to keep them feeling satisfied. If you eat sugar all day long, you will just continue to crave it! However, if you eat throughout, making a point to add in protein; you will be less inclined to overload on party food.
Excess dietary sugar raises the sugar level in your blood. Your body responds to high blood sugar, by releasing a pancreatic hormone called insulin. A rush of insulin brings the blood sugar level down, but the drop can leave you tired, irritable, depressed, and more inclined to want to grab more sweets. Moreover, insulin is the most potent inflammatory hormone, causing damage to arteries and contributing to atherosclerosis. Additionally, the higher your blood sugar goes the higher your blood pressure, and the faster you age.
Here are a few more helpful guidelines to help get you through the holiday rapids:
- Most of the sugar you eat is hidden in, or added to, processed foods, drinks, desserts, and cereal bars. Read labels!
- Beware of sugar that sweetens donuts and pastry. You also get damaging hydrogenated oil along with processed, fiberless flour. In short, a jackpot of junk.
- Beware of sodas. They are liquid candy − the #1 dietary source of added sweeteners. Studies connect them to weight gain and numerous nutritional deficiencies. Watch out also for sweetened trendy teas, energy drinks, and sports drinks.
- High fructose corn syrup sweetens up thousands of foods, from ketchup and tomato sauces to soft drinks, crackers, processed meats and even so-called health food products. High fructose corn syrup is a contributor to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
- If you need to sweeten any foods, add a little juice from oranges, grapes, pears, peaches or other fruits, or some shredded raw or dried apples, coconuts, raisins, or dates. Try sprinkling on cinnamon, cloves, or nutmeg. Try stevia, which millions of people in parts of South America and Asia use as a sweetener.
- As far as dessert is concerned, challenge your willpower. That’s what I do. If you can’t resist, take a couple of bites but no more.
Weight gain aside, holiday overeating can do severe and even life-threatening damage. I’ve seen research suggesting that overindulgence in food and drink can actually act toxicologically to inhibit certain enzymes that regulate or tamp down stress-related catecholamines, neuromodulating and hormonal compounds such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine. According to one report in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Applied Toxicology (great reading if you have a medical background) such interference in a period of stress and excitement could contribute to a higher levels of catecholamines that can trigger arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death.
During my thirty-five years of active cardiology practice, the holidays were no vacation time. They were busy times. I found myself psychologically gearing-up for trouble with patients who’d lost a spouse during the year before, and were experiencing their first holiday season without a loved one. For them, “going it alone” made their holidays far from happy times, and sometimes even downright dangerous.
Stress and emotional conflict are well-known risk factors for heart disease. But few regard loneliness as a form of stress that is commonly magnified during the period of time from Thanksgiving to the New Year. Not only is such aggravated loneliness experienced by people who have suffered profound loss but also by those who are single or divorced. The season heightens the notion of love lost −or love that’s been hoped for but never been truly experienced.
On top of this, being alone can be heightened further by the way the media portrays the holidays. Scenes of joyous meals and gatherings set high expectations, and can exaggerate the emptiness for those who’ve lost love or who feel unloved. Our American idealism about how the holidays SHOULD look can be so unrealistic, that someone who feels isolated sees themselves as a failure, which just makes everything so much worse for them.
The holidays are filled with people ringing bells and doing things in a display of happiness. They say MERRY Christmas! HAPPY Hanukkah! HAPPY New Year! They remind us of a natural condition of being with others, of togetherness and the importance of relationships with family and friends. This is what’s so hard for people who feel lonely.
Alas, there is no easy solution here. You can’t just give somebody a drug or a vitamin for loneliness.
In my practice I always encouraged patients I knew to be at risk for, or struggling with, loneliness. Here are some recommendations I offered:
- Get involved and volunteer your time.
- Engage more with community or religious affiliations.
- Invite others to be with you if you are not invited by others.
- Pursue any activities that will get you involved with others and help take your mind off loss or loneliness.
- Consider getting a pet if you don’t have one. A pet offers unconditional love to the withdrawn person, the lonely person, or the grief-stricken person. I have sent many people to shelters to adopt animals, and they often told me afterwards that it was a very heartwarming and uplifting experience for them.
This time of the year should be an uplifting time of connection with family and friends, and of giving and experiencing love. Temper your intake of food. Excesses can definitely hurt you in small ways and large. But when it comes to giving love, find opportunities for giving as much as you can, even if you are feeling lonely.
- Lynch, J. The Broken Heart: the medical consequences of loneliness (1979), Basic Books.
- Reedman LA, et al. Increases in heart failure visits after Christmas and New Year’s Day. Congest Heart Fail. 2008;14(6):307-9.
- 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.
- Phillips DP, et al. Christmas and New Year as risk factors for death, Soc Sci Med. 2010;71(8):1463-71.
- Eagle K. Hypothesis holiday sudden cardiac death: Food and alcohol inhibition of SULT1A enzymes as a precipitant. J Appl Toxicol. 2012;32(10): 751–755.
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