How to Stay on Top of Holiday Health (and How to Fix It When You Don’t)

The season of excess is upon us, and you have vowed not to overindulge at parties and dinners. But if these holidays are like previous ones, you’re bound to give in to temptation at least a few times — even knowing that you’ll be sluggish and bloated… you’ll dread stepping on the scale… your blood pressure and cholesterol may be thrown off… and you will, generally, feel guilty.
However, this year can be different if you follow some simple strategies from Leo Galland, MD, an internist and creator of Pill Advised, an online resource for information about interactions involving medications, supplements and food. “The ideal way to handle the holiday season is to be prepared to enjoy yourself — even indulge yourself a bit — without doing major harm,” he says. Dr. Galland offered advice to help minimize the impact of breaking a few health rules here and there, along with some tips on how to undo the damage when you do overindulge.

About Last Night…

You already know that eating foods high in calories, saturated fats, sugar and sodium raises your risk for obesity, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes… and it just makes you feel lousy.
But you may not be aware that ingesting certain fats and sugar tends to “turn on” genes that promote inflammation, which means that any existing inflammation in your body usually will get worse after an indulgent meal. People don’t always associate overeating with why an arthritic hip hurts more, said Dr. Galland, but there is a connection with that and with a host of other aches and illnesses, too. The more often this happens, the worse it gets — and the busier-than-usual social schedule of the holiday season often means that you sleep and exercise less as well. Lack of sleep causes hormonal changes that stimulate the appetite and slow the metabolism and, without exercise, you burn fewer calories.

Best Offense is a Good Defense

First of all, remember that you can enjoy the holidays without overdoing it. Here’s what Dr. Galland suggests:
  • Don’t go to parties hungry… so you’re less likely to be tempted by food that you wouldn’t ordinarily eat. A healthy snack or meal beforehand will give you better control.
  • Have a glass of water or seltzer before you leave home… to fill your stomach a bit. Even better are tomato juice or low-sodium V-8 juice, both of which are nutritious and also add some bulk.
  • Choose carefully… garlic and nuts help protect the body against the negative effects of eating excess fat, for instance, so make smart choices.
  • Take small servings, eat slowly and chew consciously… all of which are proven strategies to help you better control your appetite.
  • If you plan to drink alcohol, take 350 mg/day of the herb milk thistle… which helps the liver effectively process the wastes from excesses and lessens inflammation. Note: Though this amount is in the reasonable range, some experts advise breaking it up into divided doses. And check with your doctor before taking milk thistle. It is generally considered safe for most people, but you should avoid it if you are allergic to ragweed or have estrogen-related medical issues.
  • Respect your limits when drinking alcohol… some people are more sensitive, and age adds its own concerns regarding alcohol intake. Drink slowly — there’s a lag of 15 to 20 minutes between taking the drink and feeling the full strength of the intoxicating effects. Sipping rather than gulping gives you a chance to feel what’s happening and makes you less likely to drink too much.

Undoing the Damage You’ve Done

What if you’ve gotten through the holidays — but overindulged — and want to reverse the mistakes you’ve made? Though it’s likely that at least some of these are tips you’ve heard before, Dr. Galland says that following this eating plan for two weeks really will help restore your good health:

  • Cut out alcohol… minimize sugar and salt… and moderate your intake of fats. This kind of healthy diet is the number-one antidote.
  • Stay away from foods that raise blood sugar. This means limiting all grains — but, says Dr. Galland, you can make an exception with German pumpernickel bread, which is lower on the Glycemic Index.
  • Eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, at least nine servings a day. These should be the bulk of your meals.
  • Eat moderate amounts of protein, primarily fish or egg whites, one serving at each meal.
  • Snack on pumpkin seeds, nuts, raw vegetables and fruit.
  • Exercise. Take a 30-minute brisk walk daily.
  • Take 200 mg to 300 mg a day of magnesium (unless you have kidney problems or are prone to diarrhea) for a few days to compensate for its depletion by alcohol and foods high in sodium and sugar. Magnesium has an anti-inflammatory effect, relaxes muscles and helps with recovery. Note: Take this with calcium in a 1:2 ratio of magnesium to calcium.
  • Take a daily therapeutic dose of fish oil with a total of 3 to 4 grams of combined EPA and DHA. This helps reverse inflammation that built up from overeating.
  • Take NAC (N-acetyl-L-cysteine). An antioxidant, this amino acid derivative also counters inflammation. It helps fight flu, too, which makes it especially appropriate at this time of year. Dr. Galland told me that a recent study demonstrated excellent results with 600 mg twice a day.
  • Drink four cups of green tea daily. Green tea has antioxidant effects that will help your body detoxify naturally.
“Your body is capable of repairing itself, but you have to help it a little,” says Dr. Galland. “If your lifestyle returns to normal after the holidays, you’ll eventually recover your good health… but these steps will speed up the process.”