Here’s advice from Dr. Mark Hyman on creating a new start, post-holidays.
December can be a time of overindulgence — holiday parties, holiday cookies, and lazy days at home under a throw blanket. January is when many of us aim to focus more on diet and health, as evidenced by the gyms packed full of people all sweating and stretching their way back to their routines. But when you’re stuck in a post-holiday rut, it can be tough to know where to even start.
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 wreaks 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 the sugar first: Sugar is a drug, and the dose makes the poison. A little as a treat is fine, but not the 152 pounds of sugar per person each year Americans consume — which can be highest around the holidays. Cookies, candies, cake, pie, and 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, so 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 treat is fine , but think of sugar as a recreational drug and enjoy treats in moderation. Also, choose wisely: use maple syrup, honey, dates, or coconut nectar as sweeteners. And if you go crazy one night, you can fast the next day until noon and eat clean for a day — meaning just vegetables and protein and good fats to balance your blood sugar.
Next up , alcohol. Yes, I enjoy the occasional tequila. And a little bit of alcohol is sometimes good for you. But when you drink 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 of mine 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 goes 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, since sleep is when our brains clean out the metabolic toxins produced the day before. A night of binge-drinking, meaning having more than four drinks, can even kill brain cells and shrink the brain.
Still, it’s not necessarily about never drinking, but how much and when. Don’t drink on an empty stomach, since eating beforehand 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. And I always recommend cutting yourself off at least two hours before 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 those habits slide over the holidays. 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. Yes, even I go overboard sometimes and end up in a food coma. But I know how to reset.
If you treat the holiday season as “cheat season,” 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: When I spent the holidays in New Zealand with my wife’s family, I 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 of them, 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 , like meditation, movement, eating well, staying hydrated. Focus on that, and a few days of guiltless feasting is just fine.
What are five of your top tips for getting back on track in January?
Keep a journal: This is one of my favorite starting points for 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. I’ve made a commitment to upgrading my diet and no matter what, doing at least my seven-minute workout app once a day. And doing at least one 20-minute meditation per day. My wife and I sometimes do it together, which makes it more fun and holds us accountable.
Enlist some help: 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 in tandem, take turns cooking nourishing meals, and keep each other accountable.
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, in the form of 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.
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 them: Clean your fridge, pantry, car, office, anywhere you may have stashed some food that goes against your goals for the new year. When bad food choices aren’t around, it’s a lot harder to reach for them.
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 supportive supplements.