Spotlight on Wellness: Rising Above Stress Over the Holidays

'Tis the season for joy, family gatherings and a whole lot of seasonal stress. And we're not just talking the kind of stress that sets in when you're not sure if you have enough food for the family gathering, or if you forgot your favorite aunt on your list. We're talking the depression, headaches, anxiety and other issues that can set in during the holidays and throughout the winter months. And we're also talking very real health concerns that can quickly make you realize the gift of good health cannot be found under a tree or delivered by UPS.

At IPC we see stress and its impact on a regular basis. Stress a broad term with significant ramifications on a number of health conditions, including:

  • Heart disease and heart attacks
  • Digestive disorder flare-ups that can include symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis
  • Skin conditions including psoriasis and shingles
  • Flare ups in immune disorders including multiple sclerosis and lupus
  • Pain that is more severe with issues such as arthritis, back pain, muscle spasms and other issues
  • Anxiety, depression, insomnia and the winter blues.

Though research is still being done to figure out how stress impacts the immune system, we know that the body produces an enzyme that protects cells. When the body is under stress, we pump out cortisol, a hormone that suppresses the protective enzyme for those cells. That makes us vulnerable to a variety of ailments.

While stress can be expected at work, at home and in life, challenging life events like divorce, death, and in this case, holidays, can bring on heightened levels of stress. Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and can affect your overall health and well-being.

Stress hormones affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. You breathe faster in an effort to distribute oxygen and blood more quickly to your body core. If you have preexisting respiratory problems like asthma or emphysema, stress can make it harder to breathe. Stress hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and raise your blood pressure. That’s good for short term moments when you need more strength and energy to take action. But if you have frequent or chronic stress, your heart is forced to work too hard for too long, raising your risk of hypertension, and stroke or heart attack.

If you’re looking forward to lots of holiday treats and mealtime celebrations, when under stress your liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose) to give you a boost of energy. Unused blood sugar is reabsorbed by the body. With chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose surge which can lead to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Stress can affect the way food moves through your body, leading to diarrhea or constipation. The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate can upset your digestive system and bring on heartburn or acid reflux, as well as trigger ulcers to act up.

Muscles can be impacted by stress as well. They can tighten up, which can lead to headaches, back and shoulder pain, and other aches. Relieving them with pain medication doesn’t help break an unhealthy cycle.

Stress is exhausting for the body and for the mind. It’s not unusual to lose your desire for sex. For men, the production of the male hormone testosterone may increase which could lead to a short-term higher increase of sexual arousal. Yet stress over the long term can impact a man’s testosterone level downward. Chronic stress can make the urethra, prostate and testes more prone to infection.

Women under stress might have irregular or no menstruation, or heavier and more painful periods. Women going through menopause might feel the physical symptoms more intensely.

Just like of the other health challenges, the immune system can be compromised with chronic stress. You set yourself up for more viral illnesses like influenza and the common cold, increases the risk of other opportunistic diseases and infections, and can make the recovery time from illness and injuries take longer.

Stress also impacts what goes on in our heads – anxiety, depression and even the winter or holiday blues. Getting a bit overwhelmed by fitting in all the “to do’s” for the holiday can be one thing. Not being able to break out of the feeling of overwhelm might be a cause for concern. Same goes for reoccurring headaches, excessive drinking and overheating, not sleeping and other additional stressors.

Here is your RX for the season’s stressors:

  • Exercise – get plenty of it. Daily even. If you can work in a 20 minute walk, a hike with family and friends, a trip to the gym, a yoga class or two a week, it will not only help your body, but your mind.
  • Practicing mindfulness or meditation. There is not a magazine lately that hasn’t included an article, and even more often, a cover story on the important impacts of meditation or practicing mindfulness. This, of course, helps you focus on breathing and being in the moment. Both can pay off for the way you experience your holiday rush.
  • Quality supplements. IPC offers Lavela, Cortisol Manager and Phyto-ADR to help you deal with your stress. Each supports challenges with stress and they have been vetted by IPC to not contain fillers or other harmful ingredients like many of those sold on many store shelves.
  • Gift of sleep. Give it to yourself nightly. Keep your schedule as regular as possible with set bed times. Drink plenty of water, flip off the TV and get some shut eye.
  • When you are up and away, make sure to plan time with friends and family, if it brings you joy. If you seek joy and laughter in another way, consider volunteering with faith groups or organizations like the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, Phoenix Rescue Mission or others. Often, giving of yourself can be powerful medicine.