Holidays present the perfect scenario for feeding the stress response: we feel energetic and ho-ho-ho! motivated to create the idyllic season, but every year we know the magic will be so-so-so! mixed with mayhem.
We desire perfection but worry about disappointments. We focus on family values and traditions, but are mindful of our budget; we clean and decorate, yet sense there isn’t time to do it all; we squeeze in a workout and a couple of shallow breaths, but we spend less time preparing healthy meals and more time eating them. We continue to say yes to everything; we feel overwhelmed.
How can we truly enjoy the holidays when cultural norms celebrate excess? Where can we slow down, keep that twinkle in our eyes, and be our right jolly ol’ selves?
First, the problem: when we move through life in overdrive, we fuel stress. The brain responds as if there is an immediate threat, signaling the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”), causing a whole cascade of physiological, neurochemical, biochemical and emotional responses. The parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) shuts down, so digestive, restorative and reproductive processes do not hinder the body’s hyper-focused attention to the stressor.
Ideally, the trigger subsides and normal function resumes. However, when we’re in a constant state of survival, our brains and bodies stay amped-up. Our brains don’t recall how to slow down (Romm, 2017) and our bodies respond with increased blood pressure and risk of stroke; excess stored fat (Understanding the stress response, n.d.) and weight gain (Torres & Nowson, 2007); altered Circadian rhythms and cognition; and compromised bone growth and reproduction (Azuma, Zhou, Niwa, & Kubo, 2017).
Habitually, our food choices suffer and because we’re not digesting well, we absorb fewer nutrients, causing cellular hunger. We eat mindlessly, consume excess caffeine and sugar, and are unaware of our true satiety. Thus, we compromise blood sugar, hormones, metabolism, gut integrity, mood, cognition, and our immune system (Azuma et al, 2017; Romm, 2017; Understanding, n.d.).
Now, a solution: there is a direct link between lack of mastication (chewing our food) and stimulation of the stress response: not chewing well increases stress. Conversely, mastication helps stimulate digestion, which improves nutrient absorption and reduces stress… and stress reduction and increased nutrients are “related to physical, mental and social health” (Azuma et al, 2017).
When practiced regularly, eating more slowly and more mindfully will shift your body’s stress response and help prevent multi-system, stress-induced dysfunction. You may also feel lighter, not only as a result of improved hunger and satiety cues, but also from being more present in the moment.
Happy holidays! These few simple eating shifts will help us more fully enjoy the season.
1.) Carve out time to sit down for meals, and only eat. No multi-tasking, no driving, no working, no running out the door. Breathe. Ask, am I mentally hungry or physically hungry?
2.) Chew slowly. Put down your fork between bites. Close your eyes. Notice the textures, temperatures and seasonal flavors. This is a fun exercise to practice with kids!
3.) Create a food vision for events and for busy days. Prepare well-balanced snacks during the week so you can savor a homemade goodie at your holiday party.
4.) Be flexible and kind to yourself. Craving a coffee at 4:00 pm after gift shopping? Give yourself permission to indulge in one – not both.
5.) Commit to placing treats on a small plate, not picking from that array of holiday truffles or spiced nuts; then sit down to savor them.
Azuma, K., Zhou, Q., Niwa, M., & Kubo, K. Y. (2017). Association between Mastication, the Hippocampus, and the HPA Axis: A Comprehensive Review. International journal of molecular sciences, 18(8), 1687. doi:10.3390/ijms18081687
Romm, A. (2017). The adrenal thyroid revolution: A proven 4-week program to rescue your metabolism, hormones mind & mood. New York, NY: Harper One.
Torres, S. and Nowson, C.A. (2007). Relationship between stress, eating behavior and obesity. Nutrition, 23 (11-12); p. 887-894. doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2007.08.008
Understanding the stress response. (n.d.) Harvard Heath Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response