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The Holiday Health Risk You'll Never See Coming

A guest post from Dr. Linda Hodges

Want to know a secret? The holidays can make you sick. They can also make you feel great, but after the glitz and glamour you might experience something other than pure joy, and I'd like to help you understand it. Let's talk about... the crash.

In August of 1998 three things happened to me within a week:

I got engaged, I graduated college, and I bought a new car.

To this day, I still remember that week – but even more so, I remember the week after. The first week was filled with more JOY and LOVE than I’d ever felt in my entire life. I was loved, I was accomplished, and I was (kind of) a grown up. The week after, however, consisted of me molded to my bed – completely exhausted and depressed. Did something tragic happen? Nope. No reason to be sad, yet I took several days to be a functional person again.

Throughout medical school, residency, fellowship, marriage, and children, I don’t think I’ve experienced another time like those two weeks of worthlessness. I later learned that our bodies and minds can react to good stress the same way they react to bad stress.

So... with any kind of stress I get anxiety, hyperactivity, and become obsessed about everything……until I crash.

Don’t believe me? Have you ever planned a wedding, or been around a bridezilla? (Need I say more?)

In the spirit of the season, how about family get-togethers? They're wonderful! Time with family, exchanging stories, gifts, and great food. Yet, at the end of the night, you're exhausted and glad to go.

The holiday season can elicit many stressful responses – some good, some bad. The bad stress is obvious. The good stress, however, can be a hidden health saboteur.

You see, the body perceives excitement and hypersensitivity as similar feelings. Neurotransmitters and hormones do their thing and an entire cascade of physiologic reactions take off. Good or a bad  – your body reacts the same.

So why do good stress and bad stress seem so different?

With good stress, you feel joy! That joy is so big and great that it overshadows the underlying physiology. Have this go on too long without some decompression and you’ll crash and burn like I did, even with a ring on my finger, a degree in my hands, and a new car in my garage.

Luckily, more and more people are recognizing the impact of stress and "the crash" that follows.

Excess stress can contribute to:

  • heart disease 
  • high blood pressure
  • obesity
  • sleep disorders
  • weak immune systems
  • illness and infection

How stress does damage:

Stress acts via hormones and neurotransmitters from the adrenal glands (small glands that sit on top of the kidneys). 

Cortisol is one of those hormones. It's released by the adrenals in response to stress.

Now, now, now... Cortisol isn’t evil. It’s actually a necessary part of life. Our cortisol levels should be highest in the morning, simply because getting out of bed and facing the day is stressful for the body (can I get an amen?). Basically, it helps us wake up.

Cortisol's primary role is is for our metabolism. It makes sure we have enough blood sugar to respond to stress, even if it means breaking down protein to get it. So it has a physical AND mental trigger. 

Cortisol release is supposed to be very predictable throughout the day. Peaks and valleys, just when we need them! That would be the dream life. Unfortunately, chronic stress makes cortisol high when it shouldn't be, causing all of those lovely (ok, not so lovely) risks I mentioned above. 

Unfortunately that's not the end of the story. I'm so sorry, but there's more to it.

The adrenal glands release a few more chemicals in response to stress – epinephrine and norepinephrine. Heard of fight or flight? Well this is it. Their goal is to keep you alive. Any perceived threat (scary Cujo dog, monsters under the bed, end of a Netflix series with no plans of a what to watch next...) and these hormones kick on! They increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and make you hyper-aware of your surroundings. The effects of these chemicals can last for hours.

Did we mention these threats don't even have to be real? That's right. Even if you just feel like you're in danger but you're completely safe, its on. (Insert haunted house visit!)

It's not your body's fault. It's not malfunctioning.

In fact, it’s reacting precisely how it should! But, here’s the thing – our bodies were never meant to deal with stress all day long, day after day. Modern life, however, has different plans. We're busy people! We're striving for more instead of reflecting on what we have. Our expectations are higher than ever, and while all of this can lead to good things – it still causes stress. 

So, how do we deal with good stress? The kind that makes you crash later? The new cars, exciting jobs, proposals, and holidays?

How to deal:

1. Take time to unwind. That’s tough to do when things are going well. We become disillusioned when we're in the middle of celebrating. Pleasure distracts us from self-care. Being aware that good stress is still stress is the first step to avoid a 1998 episode.

2. Take a minute for yourself in the middle of holidays and celebrations. You don't have much time, but take your moments where you can! No, you can’t go get a 90-minute massage in the middle of Christmas Dinner. But, you can run out to your car for something you “forgot” and sit for a minute or two. Or, you can do like I did in residency and have a designated crying-closet.

(Not a joke. Definitely happened.)

3. Have a partner in crime. You know the look you give that special person when Uncle Frank tells the same joke you’ve heard every year since you were five? The split-second glance is a powerful micro-connection. It says “I’m not alone.” It says “I have an ally.” Knowing you're surrounded by your people is essential to surviving any situation.

4. Know your limits, and say "no." I know you're a good person, and the holidays are a time for giving. But we all have limits - whether it be limited time, finances, or energy. I’d love to give to every charity and serve at every homeless shelter. But I can’t. Giving too much can leave you thread-bare. Over-commitment causes us to put ourselves last, and you're no help to anyone if you aren’t your best. Ration your resources to events and charities dearest to your heart. If you’ve left something out, mark it on the calendar to give attention to it next year.

5. Take care of yourself physically. Do your best to fill yourself with nutrient-dense foods. Might be worth asking if caffeine is something you really need (gasp). Did you know caffeine can increase cortisol levels? Maintain your fitness routine as best you can. And don’t forget the importance of sleep! Taking care of your body is the first step to handling stress. You may think you can skip the gym because you really need to get your shopping done. Please don't.

Remember, the best part about the holidays is being surrounded by those you love, providing for those in need, and keeping the spirit of giving alive. Let’s forget about the quest for the perfect gift (not gonna happen anyway) and simply take care of each other….. and ourselves.


Dr. Linda Hodges is a physician located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She is triple-boarded in Internal Medicine, Critical Care Medicine, and Obesity Medicine.  Her clinic, Exceptional Health & Weight Loss Solutions, focuses on safe weight loss, fighting the obesity epidemic, and reducing health issues that occur as a consequence of excess weight.  


Alexa Schirm
Alexa Schirm