Want to sidestep the sniffles, restless nights and stress-induced meltdown that comes with the impending festive season? Use our step-by-step guide to stay healthy this winter…
Around this time of year it feels like everything comes at once. Christmas celebrations are in full swing, there’s plenty of presents to wrap and work seems busier than ever. Whether you have a nine to five desk job or you’re navigating night shifts, we all know that the lead up to the Christmas break can be one of the most stressful times of the year. To help it all seem a little less overwhelming, we’ve devised a four-step plan to help you unwind and swerve the winter bugs that can put a damper on festive joy.
Step 1: Take your foot off the pedal
It’s a scenario that we’ve all had at some point: after weeks of planning activities we’d like to do with the people we love over the Christmas break – sickness strikes. Whether it’s in the form of a bad cold, a hacking cough or the flu, it seems like a cruel joke that having time off coincides with starting to feel under the weather. But, is the frantic busyness of our everyday lives to blame? Well, yes – as our experts in health and psychology explain: “When we have time off, we tend to go from periods of intense stress, usually a result of demanding work schedules, commuting or juggling work with family life, to times where we’re not stressed at all,” explains Dr Michael Barnish (revivme.com). “While we are in stress mode, adrenaline keeps the body functioning and our immune system stimulated. As soon as we relax, these hormones are produced in smaller amounts and their absence leads to interrupted immune function.” Of course, this isn’t to say that everyone who takes time off becomes sick, as Dr Ross Walton, immunologist and founder of A-IR Clinical Research, explains: “Unfortunately, there are no studies to determine if people are in fact more likely to fall ill while on annual leave compared with day-to-day life. However, from a psychological standpoint, we’re more likely to recall a Christmas where we spent the majority of the time throwing up; and taking time off often makes us more in-tune with how our body is feeling, so it’s easier to spot when we’re feeling a bit off colour.”
Step 2: Have some pre-rest rest
“The lead-up to taking a break is typically more fraught with stress than usual and our body alters its hormone balance to cope with the burden,” says Dr Walton. “This well-balanced system, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, adapts to increased external pressure and regulates soluble factors to reduce stress-induced effects. Some of these secreted factors, such as glucocorticoids, also play a role in dampening down aspects of our immune system. When the external stress is removed, as the work deadlines are met and the annual leave takes over, we’re not as well-equipped to fight off infection which increases the likelihood of illness.” Keeping stress at a minimum and supporting the immune system with good nutrition is key to avoiding this. “Try to wind down slowly from work rather than all of a sudden,” says Dr Barnish. “Hand over work tasks early or adopt strategies to make sure you are not working hard until the last minute. Practising mindfulness, box breathing (taking slow, deep breaths) or being outside in nature are all proven ways to help you de-stress. Book a pre-holiday massage a few days before the time off (if Government rules allow). Massage helps you de-stress and moves lymph around the body – which is important for transporting immune cells and toxins to where they need to be.”
Step 3: Prep your body
Of course, a sure-fire way to not get ill would be to make sure that we didn’t live life in the fast lane. “The more regularly you can wrangle rest and relaxation into your daily life, the less extreme any time-off collapse will be,” says nutrition practitioner Alison Cullen (avogel.co.uk). “The longer you ninja through your schedule, scorning rest as being for the wickedly slothful, then the worse the comedown will be. Nutrient stores will run out, system overhauls will flag as urgent, and your get-up will truly go. Stock up on vital nutrients before your time off – are you getting enough magnesium, iron, vitamin D and C, zinc? These are all important for energy, immune function, mood, and your diet can be full of them if you include unrefined, unprocessed, fruit and veg-based meals in your diet and supplement what you think you may miss. You can prevent yourself from getting caught up in the hustle and bustle by ring fencing some weekends before the big day to restock, restore and replenish. Balancing activity with rest is the key to success – and to a happy, healthy Christmas!”
Step 4: Become a pro prioritiser
When things get manic, the best thing you can do is work out your biggest priorities. Spread your chores and work commitments over the course of the festive season, rather than leaving all your Christmas shopping until the 24th of December. Buy a purposebuilt festive calendar for the latter end of the year, to help you track when things need to be done by and be honest with yourself about your capabilities. Group your tasks into the following categories:
- Urgent and important
- Not urgent but important
- Urgent but not important
- Neither urgent nor important
Writing your tasks down will provide you with a clear agenda of what you need to do each day and stop you from feeling overwhelmed. It can also be good to factor in ‘off days’ – the ones where you can’t seem to muster the motivation to do anything – and ‘rest days’. On ‘off days’, rather than forcing yourself to keep up with your schedule, relax and regroup instead. “When you press pause, you are present in mind,” says psychotherapist Belynder Walia. “And, when you are more present, you are in more control. Taking stock will help you keep moving forward.” Keep a few ‘off days’ spare in the lead-up to your Christmas break and you’ll be less likely to succumb to stress. And, as for your ’rest days‘, think of things to do that help you switch off. You could try having bubble baths, reading books or making yourself a festive hot chocolate. “Find mechanisms to re-balance you,“ says Belynder. “Meditation works for most people, but doing yoga or even going for a simple walk can all help.“ If you‘re worried about not having enough time to tackle your to-do list, then ring-fence evenings or mornings rather than whole days or weekends for these moments of downtime.
3 ways to sidestep sickness this christmas
Worried a cold might get in the way of your festive celebrations? Immunologist Dr Walton has three easy steps to implement in the upcoming months to help you avoid getting sick.
1. Take care of yourself
“A well-balanced diet that is rich in a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit, along with good sleep hygiene, reduced alcohol intake and regular exercise will help you maintain functional immunity.”
2. Wash your hands regularly
“Alongside this, good hygiene in public spaces, cleaning your hands regularly, and touching your face less can help reduce the spread of infection during transit. Infectious cold viruses lie in wait on keyboards, doorknobs and telephone receivers as they are commonly handled after coughing and sneezing. You can help avoid them by washing your hands regularly with soap and using a hand sanitiser.”
3. Be strict about your wind-down routine
“A 30-minute, or even better, a 60-minute wind-down routine in the evening that doesn’t involve screens, social media or battles over homework, will ensure better sleep. This, in turn, enhances immune function and supercharges energy supplies.”