Holiday season is upon us, a time for warmth and togetherness, good tidings and joy. Or, if you’re like many Americans, a time for sniffly noses and sore throats, stress headaches and crushing fatigue. From holiday meals to shopping for gifts, many people take on extra time commitments over the holidays without really giving anything up.
Add this extra stress to the constant uncomfortable bloat of poor food choices and days spent indoors, sedentary as befits the season, and no wonder many of us enter the new year feeling run-down.
With a little planning and prevention, the holiday season can be a healthy time for all. Here are my top 7 tips for wellness in the winter months:
1. Hand hygiene: It’s not just for kids. Hand washing is the single most important measure we can adopt to prevent the spread of disease.
It’s not pretty, but traces of fecal matter are a major source of common pathogens like salmonella and norovirus, and can spread such respiratory viruses as adenovirus and hand-foot-and-mouth disease. A single gram of feces contains about 1 trillion germs.
Do your part by washing hands after using the restroom and before contact with food or other individuals. Lather vigorously with soap and water for twenty seconds, about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice, and don’t forget to wash between fingers and under fingernails.
2. Stay moist: The average American gets 2 to 4 upper respiratory infections during the winter season. There are lots of reasons the common cold is more common this time of year — for one, cold weather keeps us indoors, in close, germy contact — but one reason has to do with the bug itself. Many of the viruses behind the common cold thrive in low-humidity conditions, like your nasal passages on a frigid December morning.
Drinking plenty of water throughout the day helps mucous membranes to stay moist and healthy, which in turn helps keep viruses at bay. For extra protection, use a nasal rinse kit before bed and sleep with a humidifier — both are available at any pharmacy.
3. Get your flu shot. Tens of thousands of people die from the flu each year, and many more are hospitalized. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.gov) recommends an annual flu shot for everyone over the age of 6 months, and it’s especially important for pregnant women, older adults, and immunocompromised individuals. You don’t have to wait for a doctor’s appointment — use the HealthMap at vaccinefinder.org to find where flu shots are given near you.
4. Fight the creep of holiday stress. Unfortunately the stress of the holidays can literally make us sick — cortisol and other stress hormones help the body to respond to emergency situations in part by shutting down non-essential functions, including immune response.
To help your mind to relax and your body to fight illness, try devoting some time each day to the practice of mindfulness-based stress reduction, a strategy to center the body and train the mind on the present moment. The UC San Diego Health System offers guided audio meditations online for beginners — see health.ucsd.edu/specialties/mindfulness to try one.
5. Exercise. Like mindfulness and meditation, exercise is a powerful tool in combating anxiety and stress, and has the obvious benefit of a metabolism boost. The CDC recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week for adults who wish to maintain weight. The good news is that this can be in short bursts. Commit to a brisk, 20-minute walk each day after lunch and you’re nearly there for the week.
Exercising after meals also helps improve your body’s insulin sensitivity, which in turn keeps blood sugar at a steadier state — an important consideration if your meal included a sugary treat.
6. Rethink food and drink. Food and drink are an integral part of how we celebrate and make memories with our family and friends, yet need not be the main event — ice skating, caroling, or a wintry hike can become a seasonal tradition as easily as a cookie bake-off. A simple way to continue your commitment to healthy eating over the holidays is to stick to water, seltzer, or tea at social events. Wintry drinks like mulled cider, spiked eggnog, and hot cocoa are high in fat and sugar yet contribute next to nothing in nutrients. Alcohol is double trouble — both surprisingly caloric and detrimental to immune function. Try drinking only water and other calorie-free beverages throughout the season and save the splurge for more decadent and satisfying treats.
7. Resolve to focus on you. When all else fails, plan for January. The truth is, many of us will make some bad choices and let some healthy habits slide in December. The new year is a great time to press the reset button. Many sports clubs run joining specials at this time — call your local YMCA or gym, and book a tour or personal training session to get inspired. Another great way to get in the self-care mindset is to get an annual visit on the calendar. Women’s health providers do more than Pap smears and breast exams. We’re also happy to brainstorm ideas for positive lifestyle changes, or make referrals to nutrition and wellness experts.
Amy Richane is a certified nurse midwife at Cooley Dickinson Medical Group Women’s Health and works at the Cooley Dickinson Childbirth Center.