By Joey Salomone
Capture the sun this holiday season to stay merry and bright. In other words, go to bed early, wake up early and absorb as much daylight as you can during the year’s shortest, darkest days. Other helpful tips: eat lots of plants, wash your hands and take mini-breaks.
That’s the advice of Dr. Katie Baker, medical director of St Joseph Medical Center’s Emergency Department, on how to have a breezy, beautiful end of December versus a dreadful, stressful one.
“For many, this is the happiest time of the year, but for some, it’s the hardest,” she says. “Although it sounds simple, it’s important to get an appropriate amount of sleep and be up when it’s light outside.”
Baker admits that not everyone is wired to go to bed early. If you can’t do this, she says, at least try to sleep at the same time every night. This helps develop good sleep patterns, and people who habitually hit the sack at a regular time are statistically healthier and happier.
This time of year unfortunately coincides with the flu season. The flu virus is a true holiday grinch that affects approximately 20 million people in the United States each year, and leads to more than 700,000 hospitalizations.
Baker explains why the virus seems to spread easier during the winter months: “The cold weather forces people indoors and that leads to an increase in the spread of viruses—not just influenza, but hundreds of other viruses that people can cough onto each other.” Simple tips such as proper and appropriate hand hygiene, especially before every meal, can greatly reduce the risks of spreading the virus.
“The big one is the one your mother always taught you—just wash your hands,” she says. “And if you are sick, stay home, or really limit what you do and who you come into contact with. It’s all our responsibility.” This will in turn minimize exposure to a patient who may have a compromised immune system, such as an elderly person, a child, or someone who has not yet been vaccinated for the flu. “I would recommend the flu vaccination for everyone who is able to get it, as it is important for herd immunity,” Baker states.
Also important is maintaining a healthy diet. This may seem like an impossible task during the holiday season, but Baker believes diet is “directly related to all of the above—how well you’re sleeping, your mental health, your immune system and just your overall health.” She suggests rethinking the term “diet.”
“A diet is not something you should have ‘to do’ as much as it is a daily choice.” And with daily choices comes daily planning. Eating something light, like a salad or fruit, before going to a big family dinner is a good strategy for limiting the consumption of excessive amounts of food and desserts, she says. It’s also a part of a broader goal to simply increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you consume, while decreasing the number of meats and carbs.
Finally, take it easy on yourself. Give yourself time to relax and surround yourself with positive people who encourage and support you.
Throughout December the medical center does see an increase in patients with mental health issues, Baker reports. Visiting relatives, the financial strain of buying gifts and dealing with holiday schedules can be incredibly stressful—reasons to take numerous mini-breaks. “I think that humans are meant to be together,” Dr. Baker says, but make sure you’re spending time with those who are supportive and understanding.
So wash your hands frequently, plan ahead for big meals to prevent binge eating, increase your intake of fruits and vegetables and spend time outside during daylight hours. Follow these simple steps and hopefully you and yours will have joy-filled and healthy holidays.