The holiday season is typically a time of year when health becomes a second thought. It can mean more emphasis on family obligations, travel, hosting, cleaning, cooking, and eating what was cooked. In many cases, the “stretched thin” feeling can disproportionately affect women, who – let’s be honest – often take on a brunt of the holiday responsibilities between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Feeling overburdened can potentially exacerbate lifestyle factors that feed into poor health, including stress, lack of sleep, poor eating habits and alcohol use. While it’s important for everyone to place emphasis on balancing healthy behaviors over the holidays, there are specific ways women can support their health even further over the holiday season (and all year round).
Unlike popular belief, women are not “small men.” Women have different physiological processes that are largely controlled by a different set of endocrine system-regulating chemicals, or hormones. What helps support women’s health is different, in some cases, than what is best for men’s health. Women’s health has historically been largely overlooked in science, with women being excluded from most research studies that contribute to relatively “common knowledge” around health. For instance, intermittent fasting and ketogenic diets have received a significant amount of press around their health benefits, but most research studies on these topics have only involved men. When studies included menstruating women in their sample sizes, results looked very different. This is not to say either protocol is unhealthy for all women, but it illustrates how results can be misconstrued without fully disclosing nuances in scientific research.
For men and women alike, the winter months can bring a fear of weight gain, lack of motivation to exercise in the cold, and plenty of opportunities to stay up late and celebrate over a cocktail or two. There are ways, however, to keep health alive during the holidays with specific benefits for women by remembering a few core tenets:
Do not skip meals
With temptation at every corner, the holidays can naturally create an environment conducive of indulging. This may also tempt us to alter eating patterns to account for sneaking extra treats or anticipating a rich dish. While skipping meals frequently may seem like a way to cut calories, you may miss out on key nutrients needed to support healthy hormone balance. Skipping meals may also lead to low blood sugar which can trigger anxiety in some individuals – the last thing we need more of around the holidays. Lastly, not getting enough calories per day can downshift the metabolism over time and may inhibit weight loss efforts. Keeping a consistent meal schedule and including a balance of healthy fats, whole food sources of carbohydrates and lean protein at every meal can support the production and regulation of hormones. Protein and fat are especially important macronutrients women need to include in their diet, as they are the building blocks of hormones.
Moderate your alcohol use
It should come at no surprise that limiting, or at least moderating, alcohol around the holidays is a good decision for your health. For women especially, alcohol use can affect the hormones in significant ways. Even moderate alcohol use can disrupt menstrual cycles and reproductive function, and alter hormonal levels in postmenopausal women. Alcohol use has also been tied to higher levels of estrogen and lower levels of progesterone in pre-menopausal women. Chronic drinking in women can also affect the ovaries, which can lead to fertility issues and hormone deficiencies. Celebrate appropriately but keep an eye on the frequency and amount of alcohol use, and cut back when you can.
Set an alarm for bed
Fluctuating hormones in women can have a significant affect on the sleep cycle. During the menstrual cycle, during or after pregnancy, and around menopause, hormone levels can spike or fall relatively drastically. Dramatic changes in hormone levels can disrupt sleep. In turn, lack of sleep can affect the regulation of other hormones that control hunger and appetite, leptin and ghrelin, as well as the stress hormone, cortisol. Sleep disturbances have been linked to insulin insensitivity, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and appetite dysregulation. One important tip to help regulate sleep patterns is to set a regular routine at night. However, social engagements, travel plans or late-night work around the holidays can place sleep lower on the priority list. Setting a reminder to start a bedtime routine can be as powerful as setting an alarm to start your day.
Prioritize resistance training
After age 30, physically inactive adults lose approximately 3-8% of muscle mass per decade. Muscle tissue serves many health-promoting roles in the body, from maintaining posture and alignment, to helping regulate metabolic processes. Muscle mass is also strongly associated with bone health, and higher bone density can mean less risk of fractures that lead to falls in older population. For women, muscle loss is accelerated around the onset of menopause due to a stark drop in estrogen. Preventing muscle loss is especially important for women of all ages, but even more so for women entering perimenopause phase of life. Muscle growth and maintenance can be encouraged with regular resistance training, recovery, and proper nutrition, as well as hormone balancing therapies. It can be particularly difficult to maintain an exercise routine around the holiday season, with the weather getting colder and darkness falling earlier. When you can schedule a workout a few times a week, prioritize resistance training over cardio sessions to engage muscle fibers and stimulate muscle growth.
Do not try to be perfect
People approach the holiday season with different mindsets and expectations. Some throw all routines and health standards out the window, while others try to maintain a perfect score. The internal battle of aiming for perfection can wreak havoc on us emotionally and psychologically. Keeping a healthy balance of expectations around food intake, exercise routines, alcohol use and sleep allotment can help moderate holiday season stress. Instead of feeling a sense of shame or punishment, indulge when it feels right but keep a steady check on other lifestyle habits. Do not beat yourself up for not keeping a “perfect” routine and know that the holiday season is temporary.
There is no magic pill to get through a holiday season without temptation or challenges. For women especially, it can be a time of overwhelm that puts health on the backburner. Leaning further into lifestyle behaviors that support balanced hormones can keep your energy levels high, weight in-check and mental health steady. A functional medicine approach uses these principles to restore your health and keep you feeling like your healthiest self, no matter the season.
Curious about how to best support your hormone health through functional medicine? Schedule a Meet & Greet with our team.