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Holiday hangover: How to bounce back from the food, booze and emotional stress

Use these simple strategies to recover from common holiday health hazards.
Serene couple napping with dog on sofa next to Christmas tree
Over-eating and over-drinking, lack of sleep and exercise can make us feel lethargic and irritable. Caiaimage/Robert Daly / Getty Images

At the first mention of politics at the dinner table, you reach for the closest bottle of red and never look back. After four helpings of mashed potatoes, an argument with drunken Uncle Tony and a night spent tossing and turning on the lumpy couch, it’s no wonder that the next morning you feel like you got run over by Santa’s sleigh.

Luckily, there are some steps you can take the next day to minimize the effects of the damage done during the festivities. Whether you’re a sucker for the dessert table or spend the holidays dodging underhanded insults from your mother-in-law, stash these tricks in your holiday survival toolkit.

Holiday health hazard: High-sodium foods

Our favorite seasonal recipes aren’t exactly the healthiest, and with holiday gatherings starting early and lasting into the night, with all-day wine-fueled grazing, the calories and salt add up fast.

“Eating too much sodium in a meal can cause temporary bloating — and make the heart work harder,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook, “Stuffing, gravy and any kind of soup can be rather high in sodium.”

How to Bounce Back: Drink more water than usual and cut your sodium intake in half the next day

“If you overdo it on sodium at a festive holiday meal, drink a couple glasses more water than usual and consume about half your typical sodium intake the next day to help the body normalize itself," says Newgent. Eating low-sodium, high-water foods are helpful too, such as citrus fruit, lettuce and cucumbers.”

Holiday health hazard: Too much Sugar

Apple pie, sugar cookies, pumpkin roll … it’s easy to go overboard at the holiday dessert table (or next-day leftovers in the office kitchen). But if it’s just one day of indulgence, the adverse effects of all that sugar will be limited. “Eating too much added sugar in a meal simply means you’re getting a source of ‘empty’ calories. There’s usually no other ill effects of just one sugar-crazed day, other than perhaps a ‘sugar high’ followed by a ‘sugar crash’ for some,” says Newgent.

How to Bounce Back: Go for a walk immediately after indulging in sweets to burn off the extra calories

“The best way to combat this unwanted calorie source and to prevent possible post-dessert energy swings is to go for a walk immediately after indulging in that pie or other sweet treat to help immediately put that sugar to use. The more sweets you eat, the longer the walk!” says Newgent.

Holiday health hazard: One too many cocktails

“Swigging back one too many spirited holiday drinks may be fun at the time, but it can be a source of unwanted calories while bringing about hangover symptoms, like that aching head,” says Newgent.

How to Bounce Back: Sip 8 ounces of a sports drink before bed and have an asparagus omelet for breakfast

“Since mild dehydration is one of the main causes of hangover symptoms, ideally sip 8 ounces of a sports drink before bedtime; it’ll help replace lost electrolytes, like potassium, and normalize blood sugar. Also, consider drinking a non-alcoholic drink, like fizzy water with a slice of citrus, between each alcoholic drink, so less alcohol enters your system to start with,” says Newgent. She also suggests ordering an asparagus omelet for breakfast the night after imbibing. “Nutrients associated with asparagus may help ease hangovers,” she says. “And cysteine, which is one of the amino acids found in eggs, seems to help break down acetaldehyde, a chemical formed when the body metabolizes alcohol.”

Holiday health hazard: Family overload

We love our families, but spending a few days with them can leave you feeling emotionally exhausted. Especially if your Aunt Edna goes all in on the personal questions and your dad sits strongly at the other side of the political aisle.

“As a psychotherapist, the time between Thanksgiving and the start of the New Year is the busiest. Emotional hangover is exactly the word I use to describe the letdown after the holidays — even if you love your family,” says Kelley Kitley, LCSW, psychotherapist and owner of Serendipitous Psychotherapy in Chicago. “Often times the reason for this is due to a lot of socializing without re-charging and too high or unrealistic expectations that can leave people feeling disappointed. People tend to go home to their family of origin where they fall back into old family roles and dynamics and sometimes regress because of unresolved issues. We are out of our routines; over eating and over drinking, lack of sleep and exercise can make us feel lethargic and irritable.”

How to Bounce Back: Take alone time to recover (after and during gatherings, if possible)

Kitley suggests looking for ways to take periodic breaks during holiday gatherings, whether that’s going for a walk, offering to go to the store for a forgotten ingredient or picking up coffee. Instead of anticipating conflict, having expectations or comparing your holiday to someone else’s on social media, she suggests that you write a gratitude list going into the holiday instead to stay focused on the positives. And once the rush of hugs and small talk is over, it’s imperative you take time to recover before jumping into the next activity on your social calendar.

“If your holiday consists of extended family that you don’t see often, it may feel exhausting to feel like you have to be 'on' or interviewed: who are you dating, where do you work, what are your life goals? We all can get stuck in conversing with the drunk uncle and find it hard to escape. Whatever your family dynamics are, everyone can relate,” says Kitley. “Make sure you take time to recover. Allow yourself time to sleep, get a massage and process the holiday by writing in your journal or talking to someone who isn’t a family member; chances are, you won’t feel alone. It’s never all bad, focus on the positive interactions you did have. You may feel depleted starting your week back at work and then all of the holiday chaos continues with work parties and friend get togethers, so slow down. Listen to your body; take time for yourself. Refill your tank.”

Holiday health hazard: Disruptive Sleep

Too many servings of pie (and Chardonnay), staying up late spending time with family and sleeping on your parents pull-out couch can all keep you up at night — and make your sleep less restful.

“Sleep can often become disrupted from aggressive holiday fun. Clearly eating or drinking too much any time of the year can have its obvious detrimental impact, such as indigestion or intoxication, both which can hinder the quality of sleep,” says Jerald Simmons, MD, who is triple board-certified in neurology, epilepsy and sleep medicine. “Another problem is insomnia associated with sleeping in an unfamiliar place. Many people find themselves in this predicament, which is very unfortunate and can result in feeling unrefreshed during their holiday time away.”

How to Bounce Back: Resist the urge to hit snooze, which will throw off your internal clock

“The main pitfall to avoid is sleeping in late after a long night of partying,” says Dr. Simmons. “Thanksgiving frequently is accompanied by an extra day to recuperate, but this year, both Christmas and New Year’s fall on a Tuesday which gives little time for repair. Avoid sleeping in late on Monday after a long night of partying on New Year’s or Christmas Eve. That is how your clock gets out of sync.”

If your festivities don’t wind down until 3 a.m., it’s tempting to let yourself get a few extra hours of shuteye the next morning. But if you doze until 11, then you’re not going to be ready to go to bed at your normal hour the following night, triggering a cycle of off-hours.

“About 20 to 30 percent of adults will have this problem,” says Simmons. “The solution is simple: Start by recognizing that it’s not good to sleep in late if you have a tendency of having difficulty falling asleep.”

You may drag the next day, but Simmons says not to nap. Push through the slump and by the time your typical bedtime rolls around you’ll be exhausted and will easily be able to fall asleep, putting you right back on your normal sleep schedule.


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