As the holiday season revs into high gear, we often neglect our own health in favour of ticking
jobs off the never-ending holiday to-do list. By January, we’re often so run down that it’s hard to get back into a healthy routine. Fortunately, there are things you can do to stay well throughout the festive season and avoid holiday burn out. It starts with being mindful.
Mindfulness simply means taking stock of where you are in terms of nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress, says Dr. Kim McQueen, naturopath, guest blogger for Lifestyles Markets and co-founder of Rumble energy drink. This puts you in the driver’s seat as you navigate holiday indulgences, especially when you’re honest about how much you can truly tolerate. If you know you have a hard time avoiding all those not-so-nutritious party foods, for example, make sure you eat well the rest of the time. If stress threatens your sanity, book yourself into a yoga class or indulge in some relaxation therapy, like meditation or float therapy at Float House Victoria.
“Look at the holidays as a time to enjoy yourself, but also as a time to nourish your needs,” says McQueen. “Health is a balance between the burdens on your body and your body’s ability to cope. The more you stack up the burdens, the harder it is to cope or be well.”
Eat to Stay Well
Nourishing your body helps stave off illness, and also reduces unhealthy cravings so you can resist holiday goodies. But not all holiday treats are nutritional enemies. Start with the adage about everything in moderation, and then zoom in on the foods that are actually good for you.
“The top nutrition compromises of the season are too much sugar, too much alcohol, too much cheese and too few vegetables,” says McQueen. Knowing that, focus on upping your overall intake of healthy proteins, such as legumes, fish, seaweeds, Greek yogurt, poultry and lean beef (grass fed and hormone free, whenever possible). Some of these choices abound at holiday parties; among them, salmon, raw vegetables, and fermented foods like sauerkraut, crème fraîche and traditionally brine-cured pickles and olives, which are all rich in probiotics.
Turn to root vegetables for winter soirées, too. Locally grown turnips, squashes and pumpkins abound this time of year and delight the palate like no sugar cookie ever could. If you see roasted yams, beet chips, squash dips or delicate turnip soup among the offerings, don’t be shy; they are loaded with nutrients and stress-busting healthy starches. Warming root vegetable soups are easy to digest, and often contain proteins from meats or legumes. They also make elegant amuse-bouches (think soup shooters).
Avoid starving yourself all day in anticipation of the extra calories you’ll consume at a party. Invariably, you’ll overindulge on the wrong foods, and that means depriving yourself of nutrient-rich foods your body desperately needs at this time of year.
Instead, start each day off right with a healthy breakfast, followed by nutritious snacks all day. This will cut unhealthy cravings, says McQueen. “Your breakfast should include some carbohydrates in the form of fruits, vegetables and/or whole grains and some protein such as nuts, seeds, eggs or lean meat. Getting a solid start helps keep energy and blood sugar balanced so that you are less prone to crave sugar.”
And remember to drink plenty of water to flush the bad and circulate the good.
Don’t Give Illness a Chance
Katie Bate, a registered dietitian at Hot Mama Health and Fitness, says our serotonin levels drop during the low-sunlight winter months, contributing to depression and food cravings which, in turn, are hard on the immune system. Root vegetables and other healthy carbohydrates, such as pumpkin and steel-cut oats, boost serotonin and contain powerful antioxidants that support immunity. When you’re happy, you’re more likely to get adequate exercise, eat right and sleep well; all of which boost immunity too.
What about Vitamin C? While extra Vitamin C won’t prevent colds or help you get better faster (too much can cause nausea, diarrhea and other health problems), we do need to ensure we’re getting our daily intake, especially since our bodies don’t store the vitamin. It’s natural to consume more of this vitamin in the summer, when fruits and vegetables are plentiful and fresh, but there’s no need for supplements in the winter. Instead, eat another mandarin orange, crack open a pomegranate or splash some lemon juice into a mug of warm water at coffee break time. These foods are also high in antioxidants, which are excellent for fighting depression and inflammation.
“Fortified dairy products, fatty fish and egg yolks can help raise Vitamin D levels,” says Bate. “Or, take a supplement of 600 to 2,000 IU per day.” Vitamin D, as we know, requires sunshine, which isn’t exactly plentiful this time of year. Important for bone and dental health, Vitamin D may also help us fight off colds and flus.
Green tea, says Bate, can help fight germs too. “The polyphenols, especially catechins, may stimulate the production and activity of specific cells associated with combating viruses,” she adds.
Sugar, on the other hand, is no immune system booster. “Refined sugar diminishes the function of immune cells,” says McQueen. In holiday baking, opt for honey, coconut sugar, dates, maple syrup or puréed fruit for equally toothsome goodies that don’t wreak havoc on blood sugar levels. Pure maple syrup is particularly nutritious, boasting more than 20 identified antioxidants as well as significant amounts of zinc, manganese, calcium and B vitamins.
Exercise is Essential
“During a season where depression and stress can hit hard, exercise is the prescription we have for you,” says Hot Mama Fitness founder Dr. Lindsay Goulet, who holds a Ph.D in occupational/exercise physiology. She says exercise helps increase concentration and memory, releasing endorphins and burns up stress, which, in turn, helps you sleep. Although the goal is 60 minutes of exercise a day, it doesn’t have to be continuous. Take a brisk walk, rock around the Christmas tree after dinner, take the stairs or drop and ‘gimme 20 twice a day’. It all adds up.
Goulet says one trick is to work out first thing in the morning; 30 minutes is enough. Walk the dog, run to work, enjoy sunrise yoga in front of the Christmas tree. “Not only will you help bump your metabolism for the day, you’ll feel more energized and ready to attack the Christmas season,” she says.
Whatever you do, make it fun! That way, exercise becomes something you do to pamper yourself. There are plenty of fitness classes, like Jazzercise, Bellyfit and Groove, which are designed to make exercise fun and exciting.
“Find like-minded individuals to work out with,” says Goulet. “Get inspired. Be the one to inspire! It’s an amazing feeling.”
Float Your Stress Away
I’ve tested out a stress-busting therapy for you to try this winter. It’s called float therapy (or sensory deprivation therapy). It involves floating, weightless, in a giant pod-like bathtub of body temperature water that’s twice as salty as the Dead Sea.
The idea, explains Erik Zaremba, who opened Float House Victoria on Herald Street earlier this year, is to float for 90 minutes in total darkness, without any sound or other sensory input, allowing your body to fully relax and your brain to drift into a resting state similar to sleep or mediation. Benefits include relaxation, reduced pain, increased mental clarity, and lower anxiety. The epsom salts are also great for dry hair and skin, and contain magnesium, which the skin absorbs while you float. Magnesium is crucial for everything from heart health to mineral balance.
“Floating has taught me the importance of being in the moment,” says Zaremba, “and helped me realize the most important things in my life. Things just fall into place while I float.”
“Winter is a time to get good rest,” says McQueen. “With shorter days and longer nights, the body is built to wind down and recuperate.” Of course, the very worst way to get a good night’s sleep is to fill up your belly with rich foods washed down by coffee and champagne. That said, holiday parties are joyous occasions, and joy is something you should always indulge in. Just try to exercise a little restraint at the buffet table — and eat up your protein and veggies the rest of the time.
It’s important to remember that we can’t just run our systems down and then expect to sleep it all off. Our bodies don’t work that way.
“When the system is drained, there is usually too much stress hormone circulating — sleep becomes superficial and the mind is active,” says McQueen, who says it helps to wind down before bed.
“Turn off your electronics early in the evening. Read, take a bath, have a sauna.” And, when a cold or flu bug sweeps the office, in addition to cutting back the sugar and washing your hands obsessively (okay, often), crawl into bed a little earlier each night. You’ll wake up feeling rested, peaceful on this earth and full of goodwill toward all. Isn’t that what this season is truly all about?
By Adrienne Dyer