5 Easy Ways to Get Your Health Back on Track

Journal Entry

Dr. Mark Hyman shares his best tips

For some of us, December can be a time of overindulgence — holiday parties, holiday cookies, and lazy days at home with family. But January is when many of us aim to get back to focusing on diet and health. Except… it can be tough to know where to even start. Enter Dr. Mark Hyman. Our favorite health expert — and author of the upcoming book Food Fix — is back to help break it all down.

Katie Couric: Can you tell us what exactly happens to our bodies during the season of holiday parties and family gatherings?

Dr. Mark Hyman: Let me first start by saying that time spent with loved ones, eating delicious food, is time well spent and necessary for everyone to thrive and feel connected. If you happened to overindulge this holiday season in foods that you know don’t work well for you, please leave the guilt and stress behind. Guilt is a toxic emotion that actually wrecks more havoc on your body than you can imagine.

It’s important to understand what exactly happens in your body when you eat certain foods in excess. The holiday traps are alcohol and sugar. Let’s start with all the sugar. Sugar is a drug and the dose makes the poison. A little as a treat is fine, but not the 152 pounds per person each year Americans consume (and way more around the holidays). Cookies, candies, cake, pie, super sweet coffee drinks are on every table or desk at home or work. When you eat anything high in sugar or refined carbs like white flour, your body works against you. For one, it pumps out feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. These make it hard to put that cookie down and avoid another pass at the dessert table. You become addicted to the sugar rush. Once you get going it’s hard to stop. Two, your body responds with a spike in insulin to accommodate the spike in blood sugar. Then, when your blood sugar drops, you’re left feeling moody, tired, hungry, and craving more sugar. Throughout the holiday season, these swings impact your metabolism by packing on the pounds and makes you tired, foggy and sluggish.

This blood sugar roller coaster causes inflammation, accelerates aging, and is the root cause of many chronic diseases including obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney failure, cancer, heart disease and dementia. Those are not so sweet consequences. An occasional sweet treat is fine — think of sugar as a recreational drug. Just choose wisely (use maple syrup, honey, dates, or coconut nectar as sweeteners) and enjoy treats in moderation. And if you go crazy, then fast the next day until noon and eat clean for a day — just vegetables and protein and good fats to balance your blood sugar.

Next up — alcohol. I enjoy the occasional tequila. And a little bit of alcohol is sometimes good for you. But when you drink too much (more than two drinks), the alcohol kicks into motion a cascade of harm including blood sugar spikes, increased belly fat, fatty liver, high triglycerides, depletion of B vitamins, damage to your gut microbiome, suppression of your immune system and even brain damage! One patient had panic attacks the day after drinking heavily at night because of dramatic swings in his blood sugar. And of course it shuts down your inhibitions often leading to bad food choices.

Alcohol seriously disrupts deep, restorative sleep and reduces our ability to get rapid eye movement, or REM sleep. That leaves us waking up tired and sluggish. In fact, I track my sleep using an Oura ring, and every time I have alcohol, I notice my heart rate stays elevated longer; my heart rate variability go down, indicating poor resistance to stress; and my sleep quality goes down significantly. We now know that one night of poor sleep impairs our brain health. Sleep is when our brains clean out the metabolic toxins produced the day before. A night of binge drinking (having more than four drinks) can even kill brain cells and shrink the brain. It’s not never, but how much and when. Don’t drink before you eat. Having food in your stomach blunts some of the harmful effects on your metabolism. Limit yourself to one or two drinks (one drink is one ounce of liquor, five ounces of wine or 10 ounces of beer), a couple of times throughout the holiday season to keep your body and mind health. I always recommend cutting off alcohol at least two hours away from bedtime.

How hard is it to get back to being healthy after an eventful December?

I see patients who were doing really well before the holidays, avoiding all refined sugars and carbs and processed foods, limiting alcohol intake, prioritizing sleep and stress management. But they let it slide over the holidays. Yes, even I go overboard sometimes and end up in a food coma. But I know how to reset. We eat whatever we want, stay up late, and let stress get the best of us. And we have to start all over again come January.

If you treat the holiday season as “cheat week,” you might have a difficult time bouncing back. Try to sneak in good things. Maybe only eat in an eight-hour window (time-restricted eating) to allow your biology to reset and heal. I make sure I exercise every day. I spent the holidays in New Zealand with my wife’s family and made sure I started the day with tennis, and went for a daily swim in the cold ocean!

If you continue to prioritize your wellness routine, but have a couple of extra desserts, and one late night out, instead of a whole week, you can get back on track pretty easily (and without all the guilt). It’s important to continue to do the things that make you feel well throughout the holidays — meditation, movement, eating well, staying hydrated. Focus on that and a few days of guiltless feasting is just fine!

Now, could you share five of your top tips for getting our health back on track in January?

  1. Keep a journal: This is one of my favorite starting points reaching a health goal. Every morning write down a couple of goals for the day, even simple stuff like “Drink more water,” and “Go on a 20-minute walk during lunch.” Then at night, review them, journal about what helped you meet or miss those goals, and write down five things you’re grateful for. These practices will keep you motivated, feeling thankful, and moving towards progress. For me, 2020 is a year of commitment to upgrading my diet (I travel a lot so sometimes it slides but I know how to make better choices) and no matter what, doing at least my seven-minute workout app. And doing at least one 20 minute meditation per day. My wife and I are doing it together, which makes it more fun and holds us accountable.
  2. Enlist the help of a friend: Friend power is more powerful than willpower. Most of us want to get back on track in January, so team up with a friend. Find someone who wants to commit to prioritizing their health too, and do it together. Plan workouts together, take turns cooking nourishing meals, and keep each other accountable.
  3. Commit to rest: Getting back on track doesn’t have to mean daily CrossFit or spin classes. After the craziness of the holidays, many of us just need some downtime. Our adrenals are fried and we start to feel the consequences with extra fatigue or frequent colds. Let yourself go to bed early, take relaxing Epsom salt baths, curl up with some tea and read a good book. Shoot for at least eight hours of sleep every night. Sometimes the best thing we can do is not do much at all.
  4. Clean out the kitchen: It’s easy to stay on the same path of indulgence if all the holiday sweets and treats are still everywhere. Come January 1st, get rid of it. Clean your fridge, pantry, car, office, anywhere you may have stashed some food that will go against your goals for the new year. When bad food choices aren’t around, it’s a lot harder to reach for them.
  5. Do a reset: Nobody’s perfect. I know I’m not. This is why a few times throughout the year, I like to do a detox from all processed foods, sugars, dairy, coffee, and alcohol and focus on real, nourishing foods and certain supportive supplements. This January, I’m actually launching my very own 10 Day Reset so that everyone can take advantage of my personal system, and my wife and I are both doing it! The goal of the 10 Day Reset is to support healthy blood sugar, break dependence on sugar and processed carbohydrates, and reclaim your energy. You can check it out here.

Follow Dr. Mark Hyman on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and check out his books on Amazon or your local books retailer.

This originally appeared on Medium.com

Books purchased through this link may earn us affiliate revenue.