Good Health for the Holidays
This time of year brings cold weather, stressful travel, and gluttonous feasts that aren't exactly conducive to better health. Here are some tips for staying healthy and happy during the holidays -- and all winter long.
The Skinny on Dry Skin
Cold weather and low humidity can turn the most supple skin into a dry and flakey mess. But Russell Hall, MD, chief of the Division of Dermatology at Duke, says don't reach for your favorite hand lotion! Hall says:
- Hand lotion can actually make dry skin worse, because lotions are more water than oil, and water dries the skin, not moisturizes it.
- Instead, use a cream (more oil than water) or, best of all, use an ointment, like Vaseline (ointments are pure oil, or oil-like). "But it's a trade-off, as we all know," Hall says. "There's the social problem of going out and looking all greasy."
- If nothing works, just wait: Hall says the body is constantly making new skin cells and getting rid of old ones. He says the lifespan of a skin cell depends on where it "lives" on the body, but basically, you get a whole new skin about every month!
Coping with Stress
According to Redford Williams, MD, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke, the trick to handling holiday -- or any special day -- stress, anxiety, or depression is to:
- Be prepared -- try to be calm and anticipate triggers. Be ready for the traffic and for Aunt Suzie's criticism at the party. Then, when it happens, take a minute to take a deep breath.
- Take steps to improve situations that you known will trigger negative emotions -- if holiday traffic and crowded stores are stressful and frustrating, get up a little earlier in the morning and do your shopping then.
- Exercise -- a good workout will work off the effects of stress hormones.
- Be mindful of being kind and thoughtful. Williams says science has found health benefits from simply being nice. He says research shows people experience a "helpers high" or feeling of personal satisfaction by doing things to make other people feel good.
Need More Sleep?
"It's a well-known fact that stress disturbs your sleep," which can impact your overall health, said Andrew Krystal, MD, director of Duke's Sleep Research Laboratory and Insomnia Clinic. To increase your chances of a good night's sleep, Krystal says:
- Don't go to bed early to overcompensate for a poor night's sleep the night before. People who try to force themselves to fall asleep earlier end up spending more time lying awake in bed, which makes their insomnia worse. Try to stick to the same window of time to go to bed each night.
- Don't worry about getting enough sleep. For people with insomnia, the key is to not increase the focus and attention on sleep and overemphasize the importance of sleep in life.
- Avoid caffeine or alcohol before bedtime. While some people think that alcohol can help them fall asleep, it can actually have the opposite effect.
- If you are having trouble falling asleep, don't just lie there! Getting up, reading a book (not in bed), and staying out of bed until you are tired can help you fall asleep.
Good to Go -- Making Travel Tolerable
Krystal says travel can add to existing sleep problems, but says keeping an eye on the clock can be helpful:
- When traveling to a new time zone that is only two to three hours different from your own, try to adapt to the new time as quickly as possible. For example, if you are traveling from the East Coast to the West coast, stay up until it is your normal bedtime in the new time zone.
- If traveling the other direction and arriving after your typical bedtime, go to bed as soon as possible and wake up at your normal time in the new time zone. To help you wake up, get some light in your eyes within 30 minutes of waking. And not just any light -- natural sunlight or a light box that transmits the same frequency of light as sunlight is best.
- If traveling to faraway destinations, gradually adapt to the new time zone. Adjust your sleeping pattern by two hours each night until you are back to your normal sleep schedule in the new location.
Trying to Quit Smoking?
If you're an expert at quitting, but not at kicking the habit entirely, take heart. On average, it takes four or five attempts before most people are successful. "Don't be discouraged if you haven't been successful before," says Eric Westman, MD, director of the Duke Lifestyle Medicine Clinic. Westman adds:
- If you can't get through even the first day of your resolution to quit, that's a sign that you need help.
- That's understandable. "So often we hear people say I don't want to take a drug, but nicotine in cigarettes is a drug. Nicotine replacement is simply giving the drug in another form."
- Help is also available in the form of a new medication, Chantix, which has made it much easier to stay the course. It contains no nicotine. Instead, it works by blocking nicotine from the receptors that nicotine targets. And it's covered by many insurance plans so check your coverage.
Take an Occasional Nutrition Vacation
"It's okay to fall off the wagon once in a while, as long as you look at it as a short vacation," says Martin Binks, PhD, director of behavioral health at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center. "One day of enjoyment isn't enough to throw your weight loss efforts. It's okay to eat those special foods once in a while -- just keep portion control in mind and make sure you exercise that day."
Exercise -- A Little Goes a Long Way
Is this good news, or what? Duke University Medical Center scientists Cris Slentz and Johanna Johnson have extracted these findings from years of research examining the benefits of varying amounts and intensity of exercise among moderately overweight, middle-aged men and women over an eight-month period.
- Walking just 30 minutes a day, six days a week (think a fairly brisk after-dinner walk around the neighborhood) is enough to bring about significant health benefit and cut risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, among other things.
- On the other hand, doing no exercise can be disastrous. Participants in the study who were randomized into the control group -- who didn't change their diet or exercise habits at all -- gained weight and waistline measures that over 10 years, would mean an additional 20 pounds and 10 inches at the beltline.
- There is some evidence suggesting people stick better to exercise programs that call for activity four to five days a week rather than those requiring fewer days' commitment. "We're not sure why, but we think that it's because of you do something four or more days a week, it's easier to become habitual," says Johnson.
Work, home life, kids' activities -- does the merry-go-round ever stop? "Use mindfulness to interrupt that automatic pattern," says Jeff Greeson, a health psychologist at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine.
- Instead of reacting to things that should have been done, take a moment to be, rather than do. Mindfulness means dropping into the present moment and noticing what's around us.
- Use mindfulness when you're eating, waiting in line or stuck in traffic. "Notice the tastes and textures of your food," Greeson says. "See the colors that surround you. Those small moments can break you from that reactivity and enrich your entire life experience."