Want to hear a confession? I absolutely love the holidays. I love the smells, the decorations, and the time with family and friends. That said, the holidays don’t come without their own unique challenges. In fact, thanks to a combination of stress, travel and seeing family you probably haven’t seen in a long time, all of which impact your brain and nervous system, the holidays can create a unique type of anxiety.
So today, let’s talk about holiday anxiety, why it happens, and my top five hacks for getting a handle on holiday anxiety once and for all.
What’s the deal with holiday anxiety, anyways?
The holidays are painted as this magical time of year where we should only feel a total sense of peace, calm, and relaxation. But the reality is that most of us are thrown out of our normal routines, we’re traveling, and we’re seeing family that may trigger old wounds that can make us feel out of sorts.
It’s also a time that can bring up sadness and loneliness for many. And then there’s the gut health component. Many of the holiday foods and drinks we love can be a nightmare for gut health.
You might be thinking: But what does gut health have to do with anxiety? The answer is … A LOT.
In fact, there’s a whole area of research on the gut-brain connection. In recent years we’ve learned that not only can stress and emotions be felt in the gut — such as running to the bathroom before a big interview or whenever you give a presentation at work — but changes in the gut microbiome can actually be linked to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
When I treat patients for leaky gut in my practice, more often than not it’s accompanied by some type of mental health condition, whether it be chronic stress, anxiety, depression.
If this is the first time you’re hearing about this all-important gut-brain connection, you’re not alone. Conventional doctors tend to neglect this aspect of mental health treatment and focus on medication and other interventions. This is a shame because once you learn about the gut-brain connection, you can make changes to your diet and lifestyle to protect the gut and feel the benefits in your brain.
And it starts with a couple of daily habits you may be ignoring…
What holiday foods and drinks are triggering anxiety?
When it comes to the holidays, there are a few pesky habits that tend to spike our anxiety and leave us feeling stressed and worried:
Have you ever woken up after a night of drinking wracked with anxiety? Well, that’s not just the worry that you might have said or done something embarrassing — it’s due to the direct consequences of anxiety on the gut. As they explain in a 2017 study, alcohol disrupts the intestinal barrier in more ways than one, causing it to become leaky and allowing larger particles, toxins, and bacteria to slip through. Not to mention, alcohol bogs down your liver detox enzymes. This is a recipe for inflammation and “hangxiety” (hangover anxiety) as it’s now popularly known.
Most of you already know that sugar disrupts the gut microbiome, allowing sugar-eating bacteria and yeast to overgrow and crowd out beneficial bacteria. This is a problem not only for your metabolism and digestion, but also your mood. Why? Because 95 percent of your body’s serotonin — known as the “feel-good hormone” — is produced in the gut by the friendly flora that are getting overpowered.
Artificial sweeteners might seem like the perfect solution to cutting down on sugar, but these ingredients can cause their own set of problems. In fact, the common sugar alternative aspartame has been linked to neurophysiological symptoms like learning problems, headache, seizure, migraines, irritable moods, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. If that’s not reason enough to avoid these sweeteners, I don’t know what is!
Whenever a patient comes into my office with anxiety, one of the first questions I ask them is “Do you drink coffee?” Caffeinated beverages — which include not just coffee but also soda, tea, and energy drinks — can trigger anxiety directly by activating your “fight-or-flight” response system. Over the holidays, we often go a little too hard on the pumpkin spice lattes, espressos, cappuccinos and tea, leaving us with our heart pounding and our palms sweating, wondering why we feel so anxious.
Lactose intolerance is one of the most common food intolerances in the world; in fact, it’s estimated that as many as 50% of Americans are lactose intolerant and this number can be as high as 95% in some populations, such as East Asian, American Indians, and African Americans. Many of us who are sensitive to dairy spend most of the year avoiding milk, cheese, and ice cream only to throw caution to the wind during the holidays. And when there are problems in the gut, problems with the brain quickly follow. It’s those damn morphine-like metabolites triggered by dairy!
As you can see, the holidays create the perfect storm for anxiety and mood swings. If you deal with an unpredictable mood or high stress levels at this time of year, you’re not alone!
The good news is there are plenty of ways you can lower your anxiety over the holidays.
How do you lower holiday anxiety?
Holiday anxiety can range from general discomfort to full blown panic attacks, requiring anti-anxiety medications. If you find yourself anywhere on the spectrum of holiday anxiety scale, it’s important to remember the gut-brain connection is your ally. Rather than wait for the anxiety to hit you, then react to it – which is basically too late – there are strategies that can help you pre-empt anxiety before it happens.
You can start with these five hacks. Trust me. They’ll help bring a little more peace and calm to your holiday season.
5 Easy Hacks to Decrease Holiday Anxiety
1. Take a Probiotic
As we just learned, the gut-brain connection plays a major role in anxiety. If you’re eating more sugar and other inflammatory foods that will throw your gut flora off balance, it helps to restore the gut with beneficial bacteria through a probiotic supplement. These supplements can help restore balance to your gut and decrease anxiety. In fact, one review study that analyzed data from 21 studies including over 1500 people found that 36 percent of the studies showed that probiotics were effective in reducing anxiety symptoms. That’s why I also teamed up with NatureMD to design a psychobiotic that helps lower anxiety. Taking a probiotic supplement and eating fermented foods — which are also full of beneficial bacteria — is a great idea all year long, but it’s especially helpful during the holidays.
2. Shake It Off
I don’t mean metaphorically, I mean literally! You can shake it off by dancing, shaking, or even getting on a trampoline. It’s so important to find a way to transform nervous energy by moving your body. Did you know that when animals experience a traumatic experience they tremble as a way to get rid of the emotion, renormalize their nervous systems and recover from the incident? There’s a whole type of therapy (known as therapeutic or neurogenic tremoring) that teaches humans to do the same. Many emotions are felt and stored in our bodies more than in our minds and it’s important to find ways to expel that anxiety from our body.
3. Match Your Breath to Your Stress
Not too dissimilar from hack #2, this tactic can help you expel anxious energy from the body through your breath. Have you ever noticed that when you’re feeling stressed or riled up, you often tell yourself to pause and take slow deep breaths? This is popular advice, but it doesn’t really reflect how you’re feeling on the inside. Instead, some experts suggest trying a more rapid and active breath as a way to work out some of that excess energy and emotion. Once you’ve honored your emotions, you can get into a more relaxed breathing style.
Wim Hof Method
One popular active breath is the Wim Hof method – while lying down on a comfortable surface or the floor … take a strong inhale through the nose filling up your lungs fully, followed by a rapid, powerful exhale through the mouth. Repeat for a cycle of 30 breaths. On the last breath, exhale all the air out of your lungs, then take the deepest belly breath you’ve taken yet.
Hold it. Keep holding it. Hold for as long as you can. Enjoy the sense of calm that comes over your body. When the need arises, exhale fully and see if you can hold your breath a bit longer.
Try it out and see if it works for you. (Just remember to take full deep breaths and exhalations, don’t hyperventilate!)
4. Plan Activities with Loved Ones
We often make the mistake of staying sedentary during the holidays. Gyms shorten their hours, we have fewer classes to choose from, and it’s cold in many parts of the country so outdoor exercise is less feasible. And while you may love curling up on the couch for family movie nights as much as the next person, I know that as soon as your body goes still for too long, your mind will start to feel restless and even go wild. If you want to lower anxiety over the holidays, try building some physical activity into your schedule. It can even be as simple as a family hike, a walk through the mall or a park (Central Park is my favorite in New York City!), or even going bowling or playing mini golf. You don’t even have to do it alone even when loved ones aren’t around, thanks to the Peloton App.
5. Support liver detoxification
Gratitude is something we hear about all the time, usually in the context of self-help. But the science of gratitude isn’t just speculative, there are very real scientific studies showing how it can lessen anxiety and make you feel more positive. One study even showed that a gratitude practice can improve sleep. If you want to start practicing gratitude, check out my HAPPY GUT® Gratitude Video Series.
As with most things in life, the holidays can be a mix of fun and stress, laughter and crying, joy and anxiety. Follow the five tips above for a calmer, more relaxing holiday season and beyond into the New Year.