Unwrap a clean bill of health this season by warding off the Grinches — sickness, stress, food poisoning — that halt wintry fun.
Parties can expose you to a slew of new bugs, says William Schaffner, M.D., president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland. Traveling can make you sick, too, given the close quarters, coughing fellow passengers, and germy tray tables, seats, and armrests. And feeling stressed can majorly increase the odds you'll catch a cold, a study in Epidemiology notes. Low humidity in cooler months also means viruses stay in the air longer and are more easily picked up, Dr. Schaffner explains.
Seasonal Solutions: Go fish. A study of stressed-out students at The Ohio State University in Columbus found that popping fish oil capsules cut anxiety by 20 percent. To fend off germs, tote alcohol-based hand sanitizer. And you should also guzzle water and get a flu shot: The vaccination takes about two weeks to kick in, so don't wait until the last minute, Dr. Schaffner says. Hate needles? Ask your doctor about the nasal spray form of the vaccine—it works, too.
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Breakouts may mean there's too much on your plate, says Sandra Read, M.D., a dermatologist and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Dermatology. Stress raises levels of cortisol, which in turn ups oil production.
Plus, getting a bit too joyous with the cocktails can dehydrate you, resulting in dry skin; and winter air parches you from the outside, making skin flaky. Lack of sleep can bring on another problem: skin-care laziness, Dr. Read says.
Seasonal Solutions: When your to-do list makes you want to smash the nearest ornament, soothe stress, sleeplessness and skin with a 10-minute warm bath. Afterward, apply moisturizer while your skin is wet. "That will trap moisture in your top two layers of skin," Dr. Read says. Alternate drinking alcohol with H2O to slow your intake, and stay hydrated—wake up refreshed, not hungover.
Live Christmas trees smell divine, but mold from the tree can set off some not-so-fun allergy symptoms, says William Berger, M.D., clinical professor of allergy and immunology at the University of California in Irvine. It's not just the greenery: Chemicals in deteriorating newspaper used to cushion decorations can trigger allergies and asthma, as can potpourri and smoke from candles and wood fires. Even natural gas fireplaces can irritate your lungs if the hearth isn't well ventilated, warns J. Allen Meadows, M.D., chair of the Public Education Committee for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI).
Seasonal Solutions: Save the forest, and choose an artificial tree. No need for pink aluminum à la Charlie Brown; these days, many look like the real thing. Store ornaments in plastic containers, suggests Clifford Bassett, M.D., fellow of the ACAAI—and take trees down soon after the big day to limit dust and mold (wipe down the fake ones, and store in a container that keeps the tree clean). As for that roaring fire, use a glass screen or doors to block ash and fumes from entering the room. Buy unscented soy candles, which may be less irritating, and lose the potpourri; instead, greet guests with the scent of apple cider mulling with cinnamon sticks on the stove, then toast to their health!
A blizzard of bellyaches
That roast beast — and those sumptuous side dishes — can shake up your bowl full o' jelly. "High-fat foods delay stomach emptying, which can cause bloating and heartburn," says Jacqueline Wolf, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. A sneaky heartburn culprit? Mints. Peppermint eases cramping but the burn can be a side effect: Mint relaxes the muscle that bars acid from entering the esophagus, Dr. Wolf explains. Finally, low-fiber feasts can cause constipation.
Seasonal Solutions: Obvious but smart: Ease off the rich stuff. Choose leaner white meat over dark and sweet potatoes (hold the butter) over mashed, which often come drowning in gravy. Aim to eat 30 grams of fiber a day, and avoid tummy-hugging outfits, which can put pressure on your stomach, Dr. Wolf says. Exercise helps keep your system operating smoothly, as does lots of water.
Nearly two thirds of women feel down this time of year, according to a HealthyWomen.org survey. Why are we often more teary than cheery? "It's hard to live up to the holiday fantasy," says Srinivasan Pillay, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. We also assess life at the end of the year, highlighting the future's uncertainty. On top of that, the lack of sunshine (December 22 is this year's shortest day) can bum you out, Dr. Pillay says.
Seasonal Solutions: Recall what you're grateful for, Dr. Pillay suggests. Write thank-yous, or find ways to give back, such as compiling care packages for troops. A study in Personnel Psychology found people's moods improved by 25 percent after helping others. And plan a January getaway. Vacation planners felt cheered for two months before leaving for the actual trip, notes a study in Applied Research in Quality of Life. What better way to turn your gray mood sunny?
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