In addition to being a time of celebration and joy, the holiday season can also be a time of increased stress, weight gain and debt. And that’s not good for your heart.
Numerous studies in the Journal of the American Heart Association have linked mental stress, which usually increases during the holidays, with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and heart rhythm abnormalities. Stress can also increase your risk for high blood pressure, which, if left untreated, can damage your heart and kidneys as well as cause a stroke.
How does stress affect a person’s heart?
When your body experiences stress, it responds by producing hormones such as adrenaline that cause changes within the body, including an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. If your stress is chronic, the constant production of hormones can cause the arteries in the heart to constrict, promoting the development of blood clots.
Stress also causes your body to send damaging hormones, including cortisol, coursing through your system. Excess cortisol is believed to cause your body to store belly fat, the adipose tissue most likely to damage your heart and other organs.
Although chronic stress can damage your heart, you can actively work at reducing stress to keep your heart healthy. The most consistent stress reducers—meditation, exercise, and nurturing friendships—will also help with depression and weight gain.
Here are 10 tips to help reduce stress and keep your heart healthy over the holiday season:
1. Exercise: Exercise helps keep off holiday weight, and strengthens your heart, keeps your blood pressure stable, and lowers your bad (LDL) cholesterol, and raises your healthy (HDL) cholesterol. Aim for 30 minutes at least 4 days a week.
2. Eat a healthy, balanced diet: Fill up on fruits and vegetables and limit fat. You'll have more energy, feel less stressed, sleep better, and have a sense of control. Indulge in the holiday treats you enjoy…but just a little. Provide healthy options when you entertain.
3. Laugh: Spend time with people you enjoy, because they usually make you laugh. The old saying, "Laughter is the best medicine," holds a lot of truth. Laughing is known to release tension along with hormones, which act as a stress reliever.
4. Sleep: Try to get 6-8 hours each night. Too little sleep can hurt your heart.
5. Limit alcohol: Try to consume just one alcoholic drink at your holiday parties (4 oz. wine, 12 oz. beer, 1.5 oz. spirits). Choose water over high-calorie cocktails and sugary drinks.
6. Meditate: All you need is a quiet room where you can close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and repeat the same word over and over again...try something like 'um' or 'one.'
7. Give back: Volunteer or do a good deed in place of a wrapped gift. A kind deed is appreciated much more than another tie, scented candle, or plate of cookies. Plus, it will give you satisfaction and save you money.
8. Get organized: Use “to do” lists to help focus on your most important tasks. Learn to say “no.” Plan time for yourself and the seasonal activities you enjoy.
9. Avoid holiday stress triggers (people, activities, situations) that cause you to feel anxious or stressed.
10. Step outside: Go outdoors regularly—a little sunshine and fresh air can reduce stress levels.