Wellness: Staying Healthy in the Holiday Hustle

This post is part of an ongoing series on Wellness, which looks at the importance of health and healing in living a Simple, Good, and Tasty lifestyle. Also check out the previous Wellness posts on massage as preventative care and the controversies around calcium.


I woke up on Christmas morning last year with hives spreading from my neck to my face and chest. A little feverish all day, I spent the car ride back to Minneapolis from my grandpa’s house in Racine, WI curled up in the backseat of my sister’s car and then was home from work for a whole week after the holiday.


Truth time: I have the tendency to run myself a bit ragged, an especially easy thing to do during the holidays. With office parties, secret Santas, baking marathons, holiday shopping, and a social calendar that keeps any semblance of normalcy far from the reach of any given day, we get busy during the holidays. Like, busy busy. So when the holiday actually arrives and all tasks are finally complete, we may notice a little tickle at the back of our throats or a headache that just won’t go away.  Or, if you’re like me, a spontaneous breakout of hives and fatigue that keeps you in bed for days.


But this year I am committed to staying healthy in the holiday hustle. Part of the plan is the “oh, duh” time management piece that includes spreading out holiday shopping (or gift-making in my house). I’ll also try to prepare meal items ahead of time that can be easily stored without losing their yum factor (i.e. pies can be baked, frozen and reheated without losing their charm). But I also have a few self-care tricks that keep me sane, centered, and satiated. I invite you to join me this holiday season in giving these three suggestions a shot and see if you too can cultivate calm through the madness.


Prioritize and practice saying ‘no’

Traditions make a holiday special: baking Grandma’s dinner rolls for Thanksgiving, trudging through the forest to chop down the scrawniest Christmas tree with a thermos of hot apple cider in tow, having a dance party in the living room at midnight on New Years Eve. The first step to making the holidays manageable is to prioritize the most important traditions and let go of the rest.


There are some unavoidable social obligations: office parties, dinners with the in-laws, holidays with your 30 closest relatives…but where there is room to turn an invitation down, take the time for yourself. Instead of another embarrassing holiday sweater party, have a restful evening at home and drink a cuppa chamomile to sooth and relax you. All the tree decorating, holiday parties, and holiday shopping trips add up and take a toll on our energy reserve tanks. Practice saying ‘no’ and honor the time you need to recuperate.


Families with children may have a harder time saying ‘no’ since it can mean keeping your kids away from the fun, too. If you can’t turn an invitation down, consider splitting the social obligations up between you and your spouse or enlist a friend or family member to chaperone. Maybe a different kid’s parent will take your child along!


Breathe just a little bit deeper

Stress and anxiety restrict breath to our upper chest, which in turn contributes to stress and anxiety. Nice cycle, eh? Shallow breathing makes our shoulders creep to our ears resulting in shoulder and neck tension, headaches, and jaw pain – all physical symptoms of stress that are familiar to us all.


Spending a few minutes every day breathing deeply into our belly has multiple benefits. First, we get the emotional benefit of soothing the nerves, calming the mind and addressing the stress that fuels this cycle of restriction. Energetically, this opens us up to be more present in the moment - we can listen more intently and be more emotionally available to the people we love during a season that celebrates those connections.


Physically, our breath supports digestion and elimination. Our diaphragm sits below our lungs and above our digestive organs. When we inhale, our diaphragm stretches downward, compressing and massaging the stomach. In this way, breath is incredibly helpful for folks struggling with bloating and constipation (symptoms increasingly prevalent during times of decadence). Just a few deep breaths every day can help us cope with being so busy and everything else that goes along with that chaotic schedule.


Change it up so the decadence don’t get you down

The holidays are a time of celebration and tradition, two words synonymous with over-eating, indulgence, and decadence. And that indulgence is totally appropriate! But this is also the time of year researchers and journalists remind us of the annual weight gain trend. On average, Americans gain 1-2 pounds at the holidays. That’s not really a big deal except that we don’t usually lose it. And for many of us, this is a trend that begins when we’re in college. So we gradually, pound by annual pound, increase our weight throughout our lives.


So, what’s a gal to do when she celebrates four Thanksgivings, four Christmases, and three New Years, and there’s an abundance of finger food, appetizers, desserts, and alcohol at each?! Some folks suggest abstinence only, recommending that we avoid pie, sufganiyot, and cookies completely, but for my family, holiday fare is important part of our holiday traditions. It’s a balancing act to enjoy your favorite holiday foods and hold onto your health goals. Try substituting these common ingredients in your family’s heirloom recipes and watch them enjoy with abandon. It’s up to you whether you spill the beans or not!


Dairy Doppelgangers:

         - When a recipe calls for sour cream, try plain yogurt.

            - For cream cheese, substitute silken tofu.

         - In place of heavy cream, use whole or 2% milk (unless you’re making whipped cream, of course).

        - But when a recipe calls for butter, you should, in fact, actually use butter. Other substitutes don’t brown as nicely, leaving you with a chewier, lighter product. Also, the alternative to butter is feeding your family partially hydrogenated oils full of cancer-causing trans fats. (All animal products – like butter – naturally contain small amounts of trans fatty acids but far fewer than are found in shortening or margarine.)


Hiding Whole Grains:

It is surprisingly easy to beef up a recipe with whole grains, as Amy showed in her post last week. Here are some of my favorite ways to sub in whole grains:

        - Make your Thanksgiving stuffing with stale whole grain bread or try a recipe for oatmeal stuffing this year instead.  

            - Whole-wheat piecrusts are just as delightful as white-flour ones and are available in the frozen section right alongside the nutrient-neutral one’s made with bleached, white flour.

        - Millet makes a great topper replacement for breadcrumbs for casseroles. Soak the millet for an hour or two and allow it to dry before throwing these protein-packed, nutty treats on your favorite Midwest comfort dish.


     When in doubt, add vegetables

        - Bulk up brownies with beets or black beans

            - Add cooked celeriac or turnips to mashed potatoes

        - Sneak a green salad dressed with a light vinaigrette onto the holiday table

        - Skip the marshmallow fluff and make baked apples with cranberries and cinnamon or poached 

          pears with clove


With a plan you can do anything. Whether you’re concerned about gaining weight or just want to avoid the stuffed and bloated feeling that usually accompanies the holidays for you, get clear on how you want the rest of 2012 to go for you and put a plan in place.


Happy Holidays!


Photos by Emma Freeman Photography and Amy Sippl


Jesse Haas is a massage therapist, holistic nutrition coach and whole foods educator. She is the co-founder of Chakra Khan Wellness, a studio for cultivating joy in the healing process where she guides clients through mending their relationship with their body and their food with hands-on techniques, experiential nutrition and health education. Visit to learn more about her work. Her last article for SGT was Massage and Stress Reduction as Preventative Care.