Taking the Holidays to Heart

The holidays are here with an abundance of challenges as well as gifts for the heart.  Bombardment with artery clogging food choices, time-pressured stress, and emotional ups and downs can take a toll on your cardiovascular health while stealing the joy from the holiday season.  And the true meaning of the holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza) can get buried in the fray.

This is National Arthritis Awareness Month.  Interestingly, the same factors that can help ease arthritis symptoms can strengthen and protect your heart as well.  Over 60 million Americans suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease whose risk factors are elevated stress (causes hormonal and other biochemical changes), hypertension (which often goes undiagnosed and untreated), physical inactivity, poor diet (too little fiber, too few vegetables, too much processed food, and an imbalanced fat intake), and diabetes (on the rise concurrent with elevated obesity levels).  Another risk factor is depression which can lead to poor self care and therefore exacerbate the other risk factors.  And the combination of depression and stress can intensify cravings, especially for sweets, which seem to be everywhere during the holidays.

Science has finally proven what we’ve known for years:  Comfort foods like candy help alleviate stress.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says foods full of calories, fat, and sugar actually dampen a system in the body, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), that triggers release of stress hormones.  When we’re under stress, it sets off an alarm in the hypothalamus of our brain, which transmits a signal to the pituitary gland to tell the adrenal glands to pump out cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones, that raise heart rate and blood pressure, among other things.  In acute stress, the body quickly dampens the response.  But in chronic stress, stress hormones become continually elevated, and the HPA axis keeps exciting itself.  Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco found rats whose brains had been exposed to stress hormones calmed down when the tats were exposed to sugar.  The same HPA axis reaction applies to people.  The more chronic the stress, the bigger the reward response in the brain, and the more we crave a comfort food.  The downside:  weight gain.  Stress-reducing foods are high in calories and fat, and stress hormones activate fat receptors in the abdomen that lead to bigger deposits of fat cells.  People with more fat receptors are better able to shut down the stress response. But the extra abdominal fat is a health risk.  The scientists conclude that it’s perfectly natural to crave sweets under stress, but encourage people to find other ways to reduce stress that don’t result in a “big belly.”

All of this points to the undeniably intimate connection between mindbodyspirit and heart, and the necessity of developing a self care strategy.  This means making your health and well-being a priority.  Examples include not skipping meals and carrying healthful food with you to avoid the excessive hunger and blood sugar drop that can lead to binging; PLAN on having a nutritious snack before heading off to a party; MOVE:  making time for exercise, even if it is only 10 minutes three times daily – avoid “all or nothing” thinking!  BREATHE!  Inhaling and exhaling deeply through the nose lowers the stress response.  REST  Don’t sacrifice sleep.  Getting over-tired weakens the immune system.  CONNECT with the people in your life who are truly loving and supportive.  REFRAME:  So what if your holiday cards aren’t mailed until January? – it gives people something to enjoy during the post-holiday “let down”.  So what if the house isn’t spotless and dust bunnies have nested? – Just smile and say you decided to invite the in out of the cold!  MAKE MEANING  This is the especially crucial if your history with the holidays has been unhappy, traumatic, or lonely.  Create new traditions that will nourish your spirit and bring kindness to others as well.  It might be a visit to a nursing home, or practicing intercessory prayer for someone who is suffering (perhaps someone you don’t even know), or performing a “random act of kindness”.