The holiday season may once have been a quiet time for family celebrations and peace, but our pressured 21st-century lives have transformed it into a hectic and overwhelming event that leaves its joyful origins a distant memory. December is now known as the most stressful month of the year—and with good reason.
Just the Facts
A recent survey reported that 45 percent of Americans would rather skip the holiday season than endure the financial and emotional pressures it brings. In addition, a US analysis of mortality rates during different times of the year found that people are more likely to die during the holidays, notably Christmas and New Year’s Day, than any other time of the year. And emergency departments report the greatest influx of patients with life-threatening conditions during this period, with psychological stress cited as the most significant underlying cause.
Nearly half of Americans report that stress has a profound negative impact on their personal and professional lives, according to the American Psychological Association and the American Institute of Stress; and 31 percent say they feel they can barely manage work and family responsibilities. These figures worsen throughout the holiday season as pressures compile: increased financial worries from holiday shopping and impending January bills, fewer hours of sleep and lower quality rest, end-of-year work deadlines, and altered diets that inflame the body with increased sugars and alcohol. These pressures, combined with the emotional stress of trying to stay upbeat about it all, make December the hardest month on our bodies, both physically and psychologically.
The Body’s Response
Although we often complain of feeling “stressed out,” the human reaction to stress is actually meant to be a survival mechanism for the body. Stress is a complex cascade of hormonal interactions that exert a profound effect on many physiologic systems; this helps protect us from internal or external danger—everything from illness to running from a dangerous animal. Unfortunately, in today’s world, rather than a single fight-or-flight episode, our body is faced with a multitude of smaller but more chronic stressors: unstable blood sugar levels, fewer than eight hours of sleep, bad traffic, excessive workload, etc. We also suffer from perceived stress; this mental interpretation of an event, such as a wedding, causes identical stimulation to our nervous system without ever truly being “dangerous.” Our overloaded nervous system faces additional stress in December and this easily becomes more than we can handle. Our nervous system gets stuck in the fight-or-flight position.
Despite humankind’s many advances, our neurochemical and hormonal reactions to stress—a set of interactions called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA axis—have not changed greatly since our caveman days. Stress was originally designed to manage acute stressors that resolve rapidly, but our present-day, persistent, low-grade stress results in the continual release of a certain hormone—corticotrophin releasing hormone, or CRH—from the hypothalamus, the area in the forebrain primarily concerned with survival. This chronic secretion causes dysfunction in the HPA axis, desensitizing the hypothalamic and pituitary receptors and blocking their ability to shut off further production of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
In this state, the brain loses its ability to coordinate the incoming information that affects emotional behavior, motivation, and control of the internal and external environment. This loss of control creates exaggerated neurochemical, emotional, and physical responses such as anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, heart palpitations, and difficulty sleeping.
Stress also disrupts normal bowel patterns by stimulating histamine release from the mast cells in the gut and increasing antibody production to nonspecific foods. This results in bloating, inflammation, and mucous production.
This same stress response directs our kidneys to hold on to more salt and our blood vessels to tighten and release inflammatory markers (such as C-reactive protein), which greatly increases the risk of cardiovascular events. This means it is not just the abundance of food and our busy schedules that create upset stomachs, headaches, and chest tightness during the holidays; most of it comes right from our nervous system.
Stress also contributes to one of the most dangerous and growing conditions in North America: obesity. Cortisol, one of the most notable stress hormones, inhibits the release of leptin; this is the hormone that reduces our appetite and food cravings after a meal and jump starts our metabolism. Leptin also increases the release of insulin in response to carbohydrates—such as sugar cookies, that extra scoop of potatoes, or your mom’s homemade pie. When cortisol prevents leptin from properly doing its job, this triples the effect those holiday treats have on fat storage—particularly in the abdominal region—which significantly impacts our health and weight.
The Four Pillars of Health
It’s important to take charge of stress before it takes control of you; with its far-reaching impact on multiple areas of metabolism and hormonal balance, stress is rapidly becoming recognized as one of the most dangerous risk factors to our health. Let’s review the four pillars of health: diet and nutritional supplements, exercise, sleep, and lifestyle.
Balancing blood sugars with a good source of protein at each meal prevents excess release of insulin and provides the essential building blocks for the production of hormones, antibodies, muscle, and other vital tissues in the body. Reducing sugars and refined carbohydrates, and increasing consumption of dark green leafy vegetables, will help decrease cravings for sugary treats while supporting the natural detoxification pathways in the liver. There are two nutritional supplements that can be particularly helpful to alleviate stress. The first is lactium, an isolated milk protein that reduces the excess release of stress hormones to help relax and calm the body. It reestablishes receptor sensitivity within the nervous system, allowing it to turn off that perpetually stimulated state of anxiety. Lactium has been clinically proven to be 10 times more active than diazepam, a pharmaceutical antianxiety drug, and it doesn’t cause fatigue-related side effects.
Theanine, an extract from green tea, is another stress-relieving supplement. Within 40 minutes of consumption, it increases alpha wave activity in the brain—which is associated with calm thought and relaxation—and reduces beta wave activity, which contributes to racing, scattered thoughts. Taking theanine is both a wonderful way to calm the mind during the day and relax the brain before sleep.
Although time is limited during the holiday season, it’s important to strive for regular exercise. Simply taking the stairs instead of the elevator at work or choosing a parking space farther from the building can be beneficial. Rather than meeting friends for happy hour, invite them to go for a walk or skate—combining socializing with exercise not only minimizes time constraints, but also is a much healthier way to wish someone well for the New Year. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise every other day to help decrease holiday weight gain.
The value of regular adequate sleep cannot be overstated. Waking up at the same time is crucial to regulating many circadian rhythms in our body—not just sleep. So, even if you get to bed late, get out of bed at the same relative hour. There are five stages of sleep: stages 1 through 4 and REM, or rapid eye movement. The only time our body heals—when it makes a new hormone or antibody or repairs an injured muscle—is during stage 4. All other stages of sleep are rest, not rejuvenation or healing. However, when we are under stress, cortisol blocks the brain from entering stage 4 sleep by inhibiting melatonin production. Because melatonin contributes to healthy sleep—and the quality of sleep you get is just as important as the quantity—you may want to consider supplementing with melatonin before bed. Taking a 3-mg dose of melatonin not only ensures a deeper sleep during the holidays, but also helps reduce cortisol production the next morning.
Finally, as the holiday invites begin to accumulate, learn to say “no.” You don’t have to attend every party. Sometimes spending quiet time at home is just what you need to recharge your inner batteries so you have plenty of energy to power through the events you do choose to attend this season. Get a little selfish with your time, and spend some of it on yourself! Practice yoga, get a massage, or try out a new recipe. Giving back to yourself by protecting your health is the best holiday gift you could give to yourself and your loved ones.
By Penny Kendall-Reed