How to Stay Healthy Over the Holidays

Alice Stevens

Last Updated: July 1st, 2020

Being healthy over the holidays isn't about missing out, it's about finding the best ways to enjoy food, drink, and company.

We've taken a holistic approach to gathering holiday health suggestions from experts. We've got tips on mental, emotional, and physical health, as well as food and drink consumption.

Following these tips and suggestions will help you get the most out of the holidays this year and enjoy them safely.

Mental and emotional health

Stress management
The holidays are often a time of festivities, joy, and celebration. There are many social activities to enjoy, and it is easy to feel over committed.

Caleb Backe, health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics, warns, “Don’t forget to plan your schedule realistically this holiday season. While ‘tis indeed the season to be jolly, make sure you leave yourself time to rest as well as party. Know when to say ‘no,’ so that you can really enjoy your holidays to the fullest.”

While extroverts may thrive on social interaction and engagement, introverts may need to carve some space out for themselves.
 
Kristine Tatosyan-Jones, MD, ABIHM, who practices family medicine in the Nashville area, says, “Introverts especially tend to get very drained during the holidays when they are traveling and constantly around family. It can be very helpful to spend some alone time, ground yourself, and relax.”

If you know you'll need a break from social activities, plan ahead for ways to take a break.

"Having music, a podcast, or a book on tape can allow you to be physically present while taking a mental break. Especially if you’re an introvert, having a way to pull yourself out of a loud and hectic environment can be a great tool," recommends Lauren Cook, a clinician with a Master's of Marriage and Family Therapy.

Family gatherings and visits with old acquaintances can also bring a lot of unnecessary and unneeded judgment into your life.

Kelly Flagg, owner of Kelly Flagg Lifestyle: Fitness and Wellness for Women, advises, “"Don’t let the comments and judgments of others get to you. The same goes for judgmental family members during the holidays. Remember: they don’t live in your life. The holidays can be a time when we allow other people's opinions to define our feelings, but we don’t need to. Remember, you’re in control of how you respond.”

One way to reduce stress is to maximize your time with the people you like. Tatosyan-Jones says, “Social support and spending time with friends and family who are positive and nurturing can help with decreasing stress, so choose wisely who you visit during the holidays.”

Carve out time for other stress management practices. Kelly Donahue, PhD, mind-body coach, consultant, and speaker, recommends, "Maintain meditation, mindfulness, yoga, or whatever keeps you calm. If you don't have a regular practice to help with stress, it's not too late to start!"

Gratitude can also help you find calmness and change your prespective of your surroundings. 

"Taking a moment to focus on something for which you are grateful, like the fact that you have family who care enough to squabble, that you have the ability to fly through the sky to see loved ones, and that you can slow down and use the time in the long line to take a few deep breaths. These little moments of gratitude can shift your perspective and help you see the good around you," says Donahue.

Focus on yourself
This may seem like counterintuitive advice for the season of giving, but it’s more about not comparing your holidays to someone else’s.
 
Steven Reigns, M.A., licensed psychotherapist and founder of Therapy for Adults, counsels, “Remember that social media can give false impressions that everyone else is having a great holiday season filled with friends, presents, cable knit sweaters, and hot chocolate. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your life with the lives you see on Instagram.”  
 
While there is plenty of cultural emphasis on spending the holidays with others, there is no need to feel badly about not having holiday plans or spending them alone — especially if that’s what you want.
 
Reigns adds, “Sometimes people, out of holiday loneliness, will agree to spend time with people or activities they aren’t fond of. Agreeing to things one doesn’t enjoy is an abandoning of the self. Leaving or ignoring one’s true desire for the sake of company compounds lonely feelings. Spend time with people you truly enjoy spending time with.”
 
Take ownership of your holiday experience and only do the things that you want to do.

Physical health

Avoiding sickness
While holiday traditions are often a break in routine, it’s also important to keep some of those routines going.
 
Dr. Christopher Dietz, Area Medical Director of MedExpress, says, “When people get together during the holidays, germs that cause illness often spread easily through personal contact, food, and shared spaces. Simple habits can make a substantial difference by building your immune system and reducing contact with germs.”
 
For example, Dietz advises, “To help keep germs at bay, always cough and sneeze into your elbow, and teach kids to do the same.
 
Arielle Levitan, MD, co-founder of Vous Vitamin LLC, has three tips for keeping germs at bay. She says, “Hand washing never can be overstated. I advocate for real hand washing, not antibacterial gels and the like.”

Dietz agrees: “I always remind my patients to get plenty of sleep and wash their hands regularly, especially before eating or preparing a meal. It’s also a good idea to wipe down frequently touched surfaces, like TV remotes, phones, doorknobs, and faucets.”
 
Dr. Susan Besser of Mercy Medical Center suggests getting the flu shot: “You all should have had your flu shot by now, but if you didn’t, go ahead and get it because some protection is better than none. Remember it’s not just for you. You are also protecting your friends and family from the flu.”

Levitan also recommends immunizations, like the pertussis vaccine and the flu shot, and taking vitamins. She says, “In addition to a daily multivitamin, taking some extra vitamins when feeling run down or particularly at risk of developing an illness can be helpful. We like a combination of extra vitamin C, D, and zinc for these times.”

For those interested in consuming foods with these vitamins naturally occurring, Isabel Butler, company nutritionist at Spoon Guru, says, “Dairy products are a good source. For vegans, soy milk is a good alternative. It’s also a good idea to drink plenty of orange juice. Salmon is a good source of vitamin D, but for anyone following a vegan diet, oatmeal is good breakfast choice while mushrooms are great for lunch or dinner.”

Prevent food poisoning
Candess Zona-Mendola, a food and water safety advocate and editor of MakeFoodSafe.com, says, “The days after holiday meals show the highest rates of food poisoning we see during the year. Most of these illnesses can be prevented with a meat thermometer. Remember a turkey is done when its internal temp reaches 165 degrees F. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.”
 
Whether you’re hosting or celebrating on your own, make sure you’re preparing and handling food properly.
 
“When the meal is over, be sure to store food in the freezer or refrigerator promptly; food should never be left in the "danger zone" for longer than 2 hours; the danger zone is between 40*-140* F, where bacteria are most likely to rapidly grow,” says Diana Gariglio-Clelland, a registered dietitian for Balance One Supplements.
 
Medications
Sticking to a schedule can also help you if you have prescription medications.
 
Caitlin Hoff, a health and safety investigator at Consumer Safety, says, “Many medications encourage users to consume the medication at the same time each day for best results. While this may not be a difficult thing to remember in everyday life, the holidays often disturb our routines and can make it harder to stay on schedule with these smaller daily tasks. Set a timer on your phone to remind you to take your medication if you are out and about, or if you are at a holiday event, maybe ask a friend to help remind you.”
 
Keeping on track with prescription medications is important for maintaining health. Some medications have adverse reactions or become less effective when combined with certain foods and drinks.
 
Hoff says, “You can easily avoid an adverse drug event by understanding what can and can't be consumed while taking your prescription medications.”
 
No one wants to deal with a preventable trip to the ER, especially over the holidays.
 
Sleep
Most of us know we need to get more sleep, but FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out) keeps us awake. FOMO is especially strong over the holiday season, but missing out on sleep has a negative impact on our bodies.
 
Dr. Kristine Arthur, MD, an internist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center, advisess, “Don’t skip sleep. Take advantage of this time to get some extra zzzzs. Studies show that the immune system suffers from lack of sleep.”

Sleep is an important process because it helps our bodies heal and maintain our immune systems.

"When we sleep, our cells enter the regeneration/reparation mode and mend all the damage done to them during the day. It’s essential to provide our body with enough resting time to be able to engage in the defense against the germs, pollution, and stress during the day," says Dr. Nikola Djordjevic, MD, medical advisor at LoudCloudHealth.
 
Leon Turetsky, a certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist, and founder and CEO of BackIntelligence.com agrees: “Just by having the discipline to go to sleep at a specific time every night will give you a cut off time at night, so that you don’t go down the rabbit hole of bad habits and indulgences. This will allow you to enjoy your holidays in a sustainable and healthy way.”
 
Keep your immune system strong so your body can effectively fight aggressive germs by getting some sleep. Sticking to a schedule of sorts will also make transitioning back to school or work much easier come January.
 
Staying active
Following normal exercise routines can be challenging with all the added events that occur over the holidays, but any kind of physical activity brings benefits.

Flagg suggests, “Go for a walk and get some exercise. Even if it’s just a mellow 15 minute stroll around the neighborhood, a walk can help with digestion and improve blood sugar levels."

Movement is also a good way to deal with stress.

“Getting into the fresh air can help reduce stress, improve blood pressure and blood sugar and keep weight under control,” says Arthur.

Heart attacks
Linzy Cotaya, APR, Communications Manager for the American Heart Association, says, “The holidays are the time of year when many heart attacks happen. People tend to be more stressed, getting sick, veering from the traditional eating habits, etc. It is labeled as peak heart attack season.”
 
Pay attention to your body and any abnormalities. The American Heart Association has some useful tips on its website about making heart-healthy food choices, spending time outdoors, and taking care of blood pressure.

Food and drink consumption

Alcohol consumption
Another important way to stay healthy and out of the ER over the holidays is to practice safe drinking habits.

Dr. Indra Cidambi, who is board certified in general psychiatry and double board certified in addiction medicine and founder of Center for Network Therapy, recommends alternating alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic beverages. She recommends, “I like to spice my alcohol-free beverages up by creating mocktails for easier and more festive drinking, not to mention, they significantly reduce peer pressure as they look like booze-filled treats.”

Another tip is to combine drinking with eating. “Be sure to fill up with a protein and vegetable heavy meal before getting to the party to avoid drinking anything on an empty stomach — this only exacerbates the effects of alcohol,” Cidambi says.

Dr. Kyle Varner, an internal medicine physician, agrees: “Remember to keep the alcohol to a minimum. Nothing exacerbates family tensions quite like excessive drinking. You'll stay healthier and enjoy the holidays more by keeping the alcohol consumption to a minimum.”

Try having a cocktail without the alcohol to help lower your consumption. You can also look for other drinks.

"If you’re drinking alcoholic beverages over the holidays, try to replace it with glasses of water. Your body needs water, not alcohol!! Water is essential for regulating your body functions optimally including your heart, brain, and muscles. It also helps to balance your blood sugar level," suggests Tyler Sellers, Total Shape CEO and editor-in-chief.

For everyone’s safety: don’t drink and drive. Use public transportation or get an Uber or Lyft instead of driving yourself home.
 
Food choices and dietary restrictions
Many holiday traditions revolve around good food and special treats, but sometimes people feel bad about consuming these traditional foods.
 
Butler says, “Don’t feel guilty for joining in and enjoying the food. Listen to your body and when you feel full, that’s the time to stop as no one wants to feel sick. When choosing food make sure to include plenty of vegetables or salads on your plate to help balance out a meal.”
 
In general, it’s healthier to limit sugar and fat intake. This is especially tricky over the holidays. Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian nutritionist, says, “Choose foods that are unique to that particular holiday, instead of filling up in foods you can get any time of year.”
 
Holiday parties can also be tricky to navigate for vegans, vegetarians, and others with dietary restrictions or food allergies. If you’re a host, do some internet exploring to find creative recipes and substitutions for your guests. Dietary restrictions are not as difficult as some may think; they just require more creativity.
 
There may even be healthier ways to prepare holiday favorites that are just as tasty, except for maybe mac and cheese.
 
Varner says, “I like to substitute mashed potatoes for mashed cauliflower to drop the glycemic index and minimize the damage. The entire holiday meal can also be cooked with minimal fattening carbohydrates. This can go a long way to preventing holiday weight gain.”
 
There’s no need to make the party’s entire food selection based on one guest’s dietary needs, but it is a nice gesture to include one dish that meets those requirements.
 
For those with special diets, there are things you can do to ensure that you can enjoy the holiday party food as much as everyone else.
 
Taub-Dix says, “If you’re going to someone else’s house, volunteer to bring a dish that you are comfortable with eating and that meets the needs of your diet.”
 
When it comes to dental health, there are a few things you can do to be nice to your teeth.
 
“A healthy hack for your teeth is to chew gum for 20 minutes following meals or even snacks. According to the American Dental Association, chewing gum for 20 minutes after a meal/snack can help prevent decay by increasing saliva flow that neutralizes oral acidity levels and washing away food that is clinging to your teeth,” says Bill Chase, SVP of Marketing at DentalPlans.com.

While chewing gum is an easy way to help keep your teeth happy, remember your dental hygene and be mindful of what you eat.

"Take the time to brush and floss. Watch that you don't eat too many sticky, gooey treats, or have too many sugary, acidy drinks," advises Dr. Mike Golpa, Director of G4 by Golpa.

Applying these suggestions will help you enjoy the holidays with reduced stress, good health, and tasty food.
 

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