We are a society committed to excess in all things, which is perhaps never more apparent than the holiday season.
Bring on the holiday feast – more food, more wine, more sweets and eats (sorry, I found myself channeling Dr. Seuss for a moment). So let’s sort out the Christmas elves from the gremlins.
This, more than anything else, is a season of exhaustion. We struggle through hundreds of self-imposed Christmas chores, struggling to fit more into an already overwhelmed schedule. Something must give, and that something is usually sleep.
It’s no small medical issue. The symptom list that results from not getting enough sleep is extensive: muscle aches, memory loss, lack of coordination and stomach distress. Diseases such as hypertension and diabetes are worsened by insufficient sleep time. And you can actually die from extreme lack of sleep. This has been proven in lab animals, but scientists have been reluctant to do the experiment on humans. However, some of us are experimenting with this on our own.
Pass the Eggnog
What is eggnog anyway? Traditional eggnog is made from milk, cream, sugar and raw eggs, with a shake of cinnamon or nutmeg. It’s not surprising that it’s quite high in fat and cholesterol, although some modern versions are a bit lighter. Brandy, whisky or rum is usually added. Interestingly enough, adding liquor actually improves the safety profile of eggnog. That’s because alcohol kills germs often found in raw eggs, like salmonella. That jigger of brandy you add may just prevent an unscheduled time out in your festivities.
Eggnog isn’t the only holiday beverage consumed in excess. Has there ever been a holiday gathering where liquor consumption isn’t encouraged? We drink wine, spirits and aperitifs in celebration, and gift them as well. No self-respecting host would let a guest’s cup run dry. Because of this over-indulgence, the Thanksgiving to Christmas interval is famous for record amounts of DUIs and highway fatalities. Add a little liquor to the sleep deprived, and you are living dangerously. It may be time for a cab.
The feast wouldn’t even be a feast without a ridiculous abundance of food. Actually the ham or turkey dinner and accompaniments isn’t the big problem with holiday eating, not at least until the third or fourth serving. It’s the fast food that’s a much bigger threat, as well as the steady intake of sweets that seem to surround us. Running around too short on time, we skip eating until it’s practically an emergency. Then we make hasty choices and go for immediate gratification. Fast food is represented in all its appealing variations at the food court at your local mall – how convenient. Does healthy food even stand a chance?
It’s a medical euphemism for the colds, strep throat, influenza, bronchitis and pneumonia that circulate this time of year. Our exposure to respiratory germs is greatly increased as we spend more time in crowds, at stores, gatherings and assemblies. Seldom are we not in sight of someone coughing, sniffling or sputtering.
Our immune system also isn’t at its best. Your body’s defenses work best when we follow our mother’s advice: get plenty of rest, consume good food and keep a low stress level. That is the makings of top functioning immune systems. On what planet does this exist at Christmas time? The result – a lot of exposure and little energy to defend yourself, a veritable “bug fest.”
Did we mention stress? Pick your flavor: money stress, shopping stress, party stress, over-commitment stress. Stress to decorate the house, wrap the presents and send out personalized and meaningful handwritten cards. We all suspect that stress can be a problem. Stress affects everyone a little differently, but insomnia, anxiety, chest pain and irritability are common. Stress is magnified when we don’t feel in control of our situation. Anybody’s Christmas list getting the best of them or is it just mine?
Take a deep breath, maybe two. Your true friends and family don’t need to be impressed with your perfect cards – they like you anyway. Maybe your card list has too many people that you are no longer close to – they won’t miss you. What’s the real chance you can buy somebody the perfect gift, something truly special that they haven’t gathered in 40 or 50 years of consumerism? You don’t have a prayer. Make the gifts you give be time and attention – how about you make a lunch date with them and get caught up…in February.
This holiday season can be less of a heath disaster if you simply avoid excess in order to make your Christmas a merry one.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.