We’re fast approaching my favorite time of the year: Thanksgiving! Then, following close afterward is Christmas and New Year’s Day. Combined, these are often called the “happiest time of the year”. But, is it?  These three holidays, back to back to back, are often laden with pitfalls, making it more like a “Bermuda Triangle” than the “happiest time” for some.

Am I just being a Scrooge? What’s there to worry about?

Cold weather

Cold temperatures, specifically cold air, can induce airway spasms and shortness of breath. They can also constrict blood vessels leading to angina (chest pain) or even heart attacks. If you’re lucky enough to have a white Christmas, you may end up shoveling snow, which often leads to heart attacks due to the combination of cold and strenuous labor.

Stress

You know how it goes. Holiday stress. Stress about getting gifts, getting the right gift…not too cheap, but not so expensive that it causes even more post-Christmas stress when you get your credit card bill. Sigh.

Stress about feeding all the people coming over to your house. Who eats what, what allergies do people have, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free options for everyone, and finally – will it taste good?

Eating holiday fare

Remember that we just came out of Halloween and we’re probably polishing off the kids’ candy and are now faced with an almost endless supply of treats, desserts, work parties, dinner parties, eggnog, and of course minty, pumpkin-y holiday lattes. The amount of sugar, fat, and excess calories will probably put you deep in the hole even before you start on your New Year’s resolutions to eat better, exercise, and lose weight.

But let’s be real about this for a second because it’s serious stuff.

Fatty foods acutely make your blood likelier to clot, thus increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Sugary foods acutely suppress your immune system, which makes you likelier to get sick, especially with the cold weather, lack of sleep, and stress you will also be dealing with.

Alcohol directly irritates your heart and can put you into atrial fibrillation (a fast and abnormal heart rhythm). In fact, this is so common that it’s been dubbed ‘Holiday Heart Syndrome’.

Are you scared now?

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending to this story. After all, what would you expect from a holiday article?

The happy ending.

Cold weather? Dress warmly.

Yes, it can be cold, just dress warm. Use this time to break out your ugly sweaters (we all have them) and layer up, making you nice and toasty and the giver of your ugly sweater very happy.

Gift-giving, party-planning stress? Have a good attitude.

Gift giving is stressful, but you know what? It’s been shown that the act of giving a gift actually turns on infection-fighting and immune system-boosting genes. It doesn’t work if you get a gift for yourself – seriously! Also, consider group gifts and experiences that bring people together, like coupons for miniature golf, rather than a costly individual gift.

Also, limit the gifts (no one really needs more than one simple gift) and use a budget.  Debt is a gift that keeps on giving – giving you pain. Having time off from work shouldn’t be used for more shopping; it could be used for more exercise. So, jumpstart your New Year’s resolutions at Thanksgiving, and make good decisions throughout the rest of the holidays.

Preparing for parties can be difficult, but there are some ways to limit the stress. For example, allow your friends to bring over their favorite dishes. No one expects you to be the perfect host a la Martha Stewart.  Just have a potluck instead of cooking the whole thing. Social interaction has been shown to help cognition and overall well-being so involve everyone’s participation in your next big get-together.

The big one: the food.

You might be thinking that the above tips are all doable, but the food is the insurmountable challenge. Well, here are a few simple tips.

  1. Eat mindfully. Don’t nibble and snack on everything that’s available. Remind yourself that you will have multiple opportunities in the surrounding weeks to eat really delicious things. You won’t have to deny yourself too much, so pace yourself!
  2. Eat before you go to parties so you literally can’t cram all of the food and desserts you want to eat in your stomach.
  3. Remember to eat the healthy options first, and drink a lot of water to fill up your stomach so hunger doesn’t weaken your will to control your eating.
  4. Taste, but don’t eat a ton of sweets and deserts. Once again, you’ll have many chances to try all sorts of good stuff.
  5. If you taste something and it’s not mind-blowingly delicious, stop eating it! Move on and save your calories for something you’ll love.

The most important thing: be grateful.

No one has a perfect life but most have a lot to be thankful for. The process of expressing gratitude (writing it down in a journal, saying it out loud, expressing appreciation directly to others, etc.) has been shown to actually reduce death rates in heart patients.

Don’t get sucked into the Bermuda Triangle of poor health choices this holiday. We’re all adults and we all get to choose what we do and how we feel about what we do. So, what choices are you going to make this holiday season?


About the Author

Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC

Dr. Hahn graduated from Loma Linda University in 1994. He is currently the director of the Cardiovascular Fellowship Training Program at the Kettering Medical Center in Kettering Ohio.

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