While the holidays are supposed to be a time to spread joy and love, far too often they're also associated with stress. Family and work commitments pile up on top of many social engagements. Jumping from holiday shopping to parties and still trying to find time to work out can be quite stressful. Add that it's probably getting chilly (except here in Southern California), and everyone around you is getting sick.
[Read: 7 Ways to Decrease Holiday Stress.]
Stress and your body
While we're no longer facing lions, tigers and bears on a regular basis, the stress of modern day life ignites the same "fight or flight" reaction. Whether it's dealing with a difficult family member or facing a rough deadline at work, physical, biological or mental stress initiates a cascade of hormone secretions by your adrenal gland. Cortisol and adrenaline are two of the main hormones released.
Cortisol helps release glucose into your blood. This would help you run faster from a predator, but if you're not running, excess cortisol over time can trigger fatigue, obesity, sleep problems, depression, anxiety and heart disease. Chronic stress also exhausts the adrenal gland and can cause adrenal fatigue. While those stress hormones were useful when facing an animal in the wild, they're potentially detrimental when constantly called upon at a time like the holidays.
Complementary vs. uncomplementary stress
While we're used to using the word "stress" as an umbrella term for anything unpleasant, there are actually two different types of stress, with two very different impacts on overall health and wellness. Complementary stress is the kind of stress that can have positive outcomes, like exercising. Although exercise is a stress to your physical body, in the end, you acquire greater strength and health from your workouts, making the short-term sacrifice worth the long-term gain.
Uncomplementary stress, on the other hand, has very few benefits. This is the type of stress caused by overly processed food, psychological anxiety and work or family drama. Yoga, meditation or even a few minutes to focus on positive thoughts can go a long way in helping to manage uncomplementary stress.
Unfortunately, the holidays are loaded with stress from every angle, even from food. Nutritional stress is created either by not getting enough healthy, nutrient-dense food or by consuming too much heavily processed food – the type of food abundant at holiday gatherings. Even if you know you're going to overindulge at parties, you can start by adding in more nutrient-dense plant-based foods that provide easily digestible vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and fat. Refer to my previous article on high net-gain nutrition for the basics you need to reduce nutritional stress.
Sleep and self-care
Although you may be getting more days off, sleep is often the first thing to go when things get hectic. Sleep affects your food choices, your ability to work out, your productivity and your immune system. Prioritize a healthy sleep cycle. Determine how much sleep you need to feel productive, and schedule it in. Avoid eating too close to bedtime, and try to stay consistent with your sleep routine. If you wake up feeling rested, you'll be in a better place to handle whatever the holidays throw at you.
Fill your plate with high net-gain nutrition, work on increasing complementary stress while decreasing uncomplementary stress and take care of yourself to have the most pain-free holiday season yet.
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Brendan Brazier is a former professional Ironman triathlete and two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion. He is now a successful performance nutrition consultant, bestselling author of the Thrive book series, formulator of the award-winning line of plant-based Vega nutritional products and creator of Thrive Forward, an online video series designed to inspire and educate people about plant-based nutrition. For more information, please visit www.brendanbrazier.com and follow Brendan on Twitter @Brendan_Brazier.