By Tamara Luck, RDN, LDN
The “perfect storm” is rocketing toward the South Shore, and it has nothing to do with weather!
As we head into one of the happiest times of year, the December holidays, many of us are also fighting off anxiety—along with concerns about the flu. Indeed, 38 percent of people surveyed by the American Psychological Association have reported that their stress gets closer to “mistletoe heights” during this period. Moreover, as flu season reaches a crescendo, stress may make us more susceptible to a holiday that isn’t exactly feverish with fun (American Council of Science and Health).
Is your stomach starting to churn just thinking about all this? That’s good! Increasingly, dietitians are suggesting that you listen to your gut (digestive system) to keep holiday stress in check and your body healthy. Open yourself to the joys of the season by paying extra attention to what you eat.
First of all, the gut is a powerful disease-fighting arsenal. “Gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) … represents almost 70% of the entire immune system” (Clinical and Experimental Immunology).
What’s more, our bodies depend on our digestive system to break down the disease-fighting and energy-producing nutrients in our food, and move them into our blood and organs. But as we’re scrambling to meet deadlines, grab every last present from the shelves, and prepare for an influx of family, it’s easy to forget proper eating. Wolfing down meals, guzzling potato chips from the vending machine, or making holiday fudge our lunch and dinner …. we’ve all been there and know the result. Incompletely digested food, inadequate nutrition, and eating at racecar speed set us up to feel stress more, exacerbate reflux, and invite the flu virus to invade.
It’s a vicious circle, as stress causes our bodies to make more cortisol that produces a “fight or flight” reaction. Yet, there are foods and habits we can embrace to reverse the cycle and light up that precious time, including:
Magnesium, which may lower the cortisol associated with anxiety, and help regulate our hearts and blood sugar. Good dietary sources are spinach, nuts and chocolate.
B vitamins: Dark leafy green vegetables, high-quality (e.g., grass-fed) beef and antibiotic-free/hormone-free chicken are excellent sources of these vitamins, which are important for cellular metabolism and maintaining high levels of energy.
C-c-c-coffee! For coffee lovers who get the jitters with every strong cup, add adaptogens like ashwagandha, which may help counter these effects.
Deep breaths: Before leaving for work and getting into bed, try box breathing—slow deep inhalations and exhalations, each to the count of four. This is a methodology used by people in high-stress professions (Healthline).
Aromatherapy: Research indicates that breathing in lavender may keep anxiety in check (Medical News Today).
Bone broth: Simmered for about 24 hours, bone broth is a rich source of vitamins and minerals. Making it the base of a soup, or eating it throughout the day, can help fortify you against the flu’s “wrath.” If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, a broth based on Shiitake mushrooms, which are packed with vitamin B5, riboflavin, niacin and more is a great alternative.
The power of oysters: Legendary for being aphrodisiacs, these bivalves are good for more than raising passion under the mistletoe. From vitamin A to zinc, they’re filled with nutrients to give the immune system an extra boost.
Berries: Dark berries, like blueberries and strawberries, aren’t just tasty; they’re filled with vitamins, along with antioxidants that may help stave off everything from heart attacks to Alzheimer’s Disease. Although these foods are important for good health, consider choosing organic varieties to consume them free of pesticides. This year, the Environmental Working Group has placed strawberries (and spinach) on its list of the Dirty Dozen™ foods that tend to absorb these potential toxins.
Garlic: Will garlic mashed potatoes be on your holiday table? Rejoice while you break out the mints! Whether you swallow some cloves or sauté it with some vegetables, you may be buttressing yourself against bacterial infections that are secondary to a flu outbreak.
Listen to your mother or father—eat your veggies! As you prepare for more “sinful” holiday feasts, eat lots of healthier meals with liberal servings of vitamin- and mineral-packed vegetables. Fill half your plate with veggies of every color, add high-quality proteins (like antibiotic-free chicken) and healthy fats such as avocado or walnuts.
Most of all, enjoy! With the right nutrition, you’ll be able to quiet that holiday storm, and fill your holiday season with love, happiness and fun.
About the Author: Tamara Luck, RDN, LDN is an integrative and functional dietitian with Bird’s Hill Compounding Pharmacy of Needham, which follows a holistic approach to health/medicine. More information is available at birdshillpharmacy.com or 781-449-0550.