Between a gigantic to-do list and general merrymaking, December often feels like a minefield of health traps. If rich victuals and cocktails don't get you, too little exercise and pillow time might. The average American may gain an average of just one pound this month, but over the years those pounds really add up, say studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health. And that's not to mention what a lack of exercise and sleep can do to your mood. Can you enjoy the festivities without sabotaging your physical and mental well-being? Absolutely. Here's what experts suggest to sidestep major health pitfalls (and mitigate minor infringements) naturally.
Sure, you can stick to a healthy diet during the workweek, but who can resist all the hors d'oeuvres and desserts at the nonstop round of holiday events? "Decide ahead of time to attend only the parties and eat only those foods that are most important to your tradition of the holidays," suggests Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietitian in Salem, Oregon, and author of Age-Proof Your Body (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and 10 Habits that Mess Up a Woman's Diet (McGraw-Hill, 2005). Keep in mind that "the enjoyment of tasting new foods comes in the first few bites," she says, "so savor the flavor of one appetizer, but don't eat the whole bowl." Your insides—and your waistline—will thank you.
If your last trip to the buffet table left you feeling bloated or uncomfortable with indigestion, the herb artichoke ( Cynara scolymus) might offer relief. Add 2 ml of artichoke extract tincture (containing the active constituent cynarin) to a glass of water and sip after a meal; you can also take it before meals you suspect will trigger indigestion. Skip this remedy if you have ulcers or gastritis. A hot brew of linden flowers ( Tilia spp.) also can soothe intestinal upset; this herb comes as a tincture too. Or try rooibos (red bush), a caffeine-free herbal tisane made from a South African shrub, to settle a tummy taxed by too many party foods.
As a way to pace yourself and counteract dehydration, "dilute your drinks or alternate one alcoholic beverage with two nonalcoholic beverages," suggests Somer. Carrying around a bottle of vitamin B6 can also dial down the unpleasant side effects of alcohol: Take 400 mg before the party, 400 mg during the party, and 400 mg before bed. (Note: Do not continue taking high doses of B6 on a regular basis; doing so can harm your nervous system.)
Drinking plenty of water, juice, or sports drinks helps your body rehydrate. When you imbibe, urination revs into high gear because alcohol interferes with the release of vasopressin (a hormone that lessens the amount of urine made by the kidneys). And it wouldn't hurt to take some milk thistle ( Silybum marianum). Taking 400-500 mg of silymarin, the active constituent in milk thistle, supports your overworked liver by removing toxins and even regenerating injured liver cells.
Did you know that sleeping six hours a night can, after a few weeks, make your brain as foggy as that of someone who has stayed awake for 36 hours nonstop? Late nights plugging away at your to-do list or entertaining guests could be to blame, but part of the problem may be artificial light, which suppresses the body's release of melatonin, the hormone that promotes a feeling of sleepiness. Dim the lights a few hours before your desired bedtime to help your body feel ready to go to sleep. A melatonin supplement (1-3 mg taken a few hours before bed) may also help prep your body for rest. Or try valerian ( Valeriana officinalis) to ease the transition to sleep; take 400 mg one hour before bedtime.
Although nothing but actual sleep will repay your sleep debt, contrast hydrotherapy offers a quick pick-me-up if you simply don't have time to snooze. It might sound a bit barbaric, but it's invigorating—really. First, enjoy three minutes of a hot shower, as hot as you can stand it. Then dial it down to cold water for 30 seconds. Alternate between three minutes of hot and 30 seconds of cold for three sets, ending with cold. This simple technique stimulates circulation and promotes overall energy.
Green foods, such as the microalgae spirulina, chlorella, and Klamath Lake blue-green algae, as well as cereal grasses, such as barley grass and wheatgrass, provide concentrated nutrition to boost lagging energy. Mix 1-3 teaspoons of green foods (powder or flakes) with water or juice, but be prepared for a "grassy" taste; if you can't get used to it, try taking it in tablets or capsules.
No time for your usual spin class, yoga session, or weight-training routine between the holiday hustle and bustle? Overcome your workout impediments with a little creativity. For example, plan active get-togethers with family and friends. Start a new tradition of a family walk to view decorated houses in your neighborhood. Or, while gift shopping at the mall, strap on a pedometer. Beth Shaw, founder of YogaFit Training Systems in Torrance, California, suggests aiming to take 10,000 steps every day during the holiday season.
If a week (or two or three) slides by, it's not too late to get back on track. "View the next day as an opportunity to make a correction," says Shaw, and start by adding 30 minutes of walking to your day. If you're more likely to exercise with a partner, check out www.walkers.meetup.com to find a walking buddy in your area. "Schedule gym time—just like you would make a business or doctor's appointment. And then stick to it!" says Shaw.