Holiday health hazards

You’ve been working hard all year to stay healthy, especially during the pandemic. And it might seem like the holidays are a time to let down your guard and indulge. Just be careful: the holidays come with certain health hazards. Give yourself an early present by learning about the risks and planning ways to get through this month safely.

Limit unhealthy foods

Traditional foods are a treasured part of the holidays for many people. But those delicacies are typically loaded with salt, sugar, unhealthy saturated fat, and extra calories. Eating that kind of food every day for weeks might lead to weight gain or contribute to high cholesterol and blood sugar. Most people gain weight over the holidays — and don’t lose all of it afterward.

Instead, pick a few days to splurge, like New Year’s Eve. But even then, enjoy just a spoonful or two of holiday treats, not a plateful. And renew your resolve to eat a healthy plant-based diet. Make everyday meals festive by using spices such as allspice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, or cardamom.

Limit alcohol intake

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Celebrating the season by drinking alcohol can trigger a sudden, temporary condition known as holiday heart syndrome. It’s a fast, irregular heartbeat, frequently a type called atrial fibrillation, or afib — when the heart’s upper chambers quiver instead of contracting vigorously, keeping them from pumping blood efficiently. How much indulging does it take?

“While setting off afib is more commonly associated with heavy drinking, even one drink can increase the risk in people who are already predisposed, such as someone with a history of previous afib episodes — an unpopular fact,” says Dr. Deepak L. Bhatt, a cardiologist and editor in chief of the Harvard Heart Letter.

Holiday heart can be made worse by eating a big, salty meal or feeling stressed. If the irregular heartbeat lasts for hours or is accompanied by shortness of breath and chest pain, go to the emergency department. And to decrease the risk for holiday heart in the first place, limit alcoholic drinks to no more than one (for women) or two (for men) per day, especially when you’re also eating unhealthy food.

Avoid COVID-19 exposure

Visiting with friends and family is one of the most joyous aspects of the holidays. But it’s also a potential hazard in the pandemic, since the COVID-19 virus spreads through the air.

For safer gatherings, everyone should be fully vaccinated and get a vaccine booster if they’re eligible, advises Stephen Kissler, a research fellow in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Kissler also recommends that everyone take a rapid antigen test, available at drugstores without a prescription, just before arriving at a gathering. “These tests help ensure that people don’t show up while infectious with COVID-19. We want to keep our holiday gatherings from becoming super-spreader events,” Kissler says.

Finally, increase ventilation in the rooms where you’ll be visiting with others. “Open the windows about six inches if you live in a place that’s warm enough. If not, consider investing in a portable air purifier with a HEPA air filter. We don’t have definitive evidence that it reduces COVID in the air, but we know for sure that it can reduce aerosol-like matter, and COVID spreads in aerosols. An air purifier may also help protect against the spread of other respiratory bugs,” Kissler says.

What if unmasked, unvaccinated children are visiting? They, too, should take the rapid test beforehand, says Kissler. As long as they test negative, “the odds that they show up while infectious, spread infection in a well-ventilated room, and cause a vaccinated person to develop severe illness are quite low,” he says. “This is the real advantage we have over last year: without vaccines and fewer accessible tests, we had to rely more on ventilation and distancing. Vaccines and tests let us ease up on the distancing, even if there are unvaccinated kids around.”

Check for the most current guidelines before a gathering, since pandemic conditions and recommendations can change rapidly.

For the latest advice, visit Harvard Health Publishing’s Coronavirus Resource Center (/cvrc) or the CDC (/covid).

Manage stress

Lots of things can cause stress during the holidays, such as preparations for gifts or gatherings, family friction, not getting enough sleep, or worrying about the pandemic. Stress weakens the immune system, something that’s already becoming less efficient as we age. And none of us can afford a weaker immune system right now.

To avoid stress, exercise regularly; get at least seven hours of sleep nightly; eat a healthy diet; and practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation, guided imagery, yoga, or deep breathing exercises.

  1. Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
  2. Matthew 18:15
    If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.
  3. Ephesians 1:7-8
    In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace, which he made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence.
  4. Luke 6:37
    Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
  5. 1 Peter 3:9
    Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.
  6. Romans 6:23
    For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
  7. John 3:16-17
    For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
  8. Matthew 18:21-22
    Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
  9. Joel 2:13
    Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
  10. Psalm 65:3
    Though we are overwhelmed by our sins, you forgive them all.
  11. Romans 4:5
    But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners.

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