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Experts: Beat holiday stress to avoid weight gain and heart attack

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Experts share how to avoid holiday stress that can lead to heart attack.

Experts warn how holidays can take a toll on health. Cold weather, combined with stress can set the stage for adverse health events, including heart attack and other complications like weight gain and even more emotional and physical stress.

Stress that can come from financial worries or just hurrying to get things done raises adrenaline levels, resulting in higher blood pressure and heart rate.

Dr. Nasser Lakkis, chief, Cardiology, Harris Health System’s Ben Taub Hospital explains in a media release “Stress and its many forms — be it emotional, financial or physical — can put undue pressure on your heart during a time that should be happy and joyous.”

Lakkis explains high levels of adrenaline can restrict blood flow to the heart from spasms of the arteries. Symptoms include chest discomfort, pain in the upper body, anxiety, lightheadedness, nausea and vomiting and jaw or back pain, especially in women.

Is it just stress or your heart?

Lakkis warns any of the symptoms might signal impending heart attack and should not be ignored. Chalking up your symptoms to stress at the holidays is just a bad idea. If you’re experiencing any uncomfortable symptoms, see your doctor for a checkup.

Focusing on good health is important year round, but during the holidays many people stop exercising regularly, eat unhealthy foods, stop taking their medications and tend to ignore symptoms.

If you want to have a healthy and happy holiday, Lakkis recommends avoiding stressful family situations. If you know a family gathering is going to be stressful, don’t go.

Lakkis says holidays should be fun. His recommendations to ease holiday stress include:

• Enjoy family gatherings and take them in stride.
• Reach out to friends or do volunteer work if you’re alone
• Set and stick to a realistic budget if you’re worried about finances
• Minimize the amount of alcohol you drink or tobacco you use or avoid them altogether
• Plan your activities. If things don’t go as planned, don’t dwell on it
• Learn to say no if you can’t do something
• Set realistic expectations about the holidays to avoid disappointment.

Exercise and dieting

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Erica Christ, RD, CDE, an exercise physiologist at Greenwich Hospital’s Weight Loss & Diabetes Center has some advice about activity at the holidays that she says can help tame stress.

According to Christ, exercise triggers release of dopamine – a natural chemical that leads to feelings of well-being and boosts mood more effectively than some antidepressant medications.

Christ recommends just trying to maintain your weight at the holidays, rather than focusing on weight loss. Trying to lose pounds when food is abundant could lead to failure and more stress.

Keep healthy foods in the home and pay attention to when you’re hungry. Ask yourself why you’re eating. Is it just because food is there?

Christ also stresses the importance of keeping up with your normal exercise routine during the holidays.

“The biggest goal is to teach people how to use exercise as a way to de-stress from the outside world. It’s the ability to use an hour to turn off the rest of the world and focus on the task at hand. You become empowered while you’re doing it, and that empowerment is motivation for overall self-improvement,” said Christ in a news release.

Christ recommends Pilates for her own clients. The benefits include overall strengthening and mind-body awareness that can also help us stay focused year round. Christ says Pilates is safe and effective. It’s easy to incorporate a Pilates program into your daily routine at home.

The bottom line is that holiday time should be festive, fun and relaxing, but too often we ignore our health and succumb to financial and emotional stress.

If you haven’t had a checkup this year, take time to see your doctor before the holiday arrives. Give yourself and your family the gift of good health and peace of mind. Don’t ignore your exercise routine.

Understand the holidays can take a toll on heart health. Don’t ignore symptoms of chest discomfort, anxiety, shortness of breath, back or jaw pain, all of which can signal heart problems. Pay attention to why you're eating and stick with your exercise routine. Managing stress at the holidays will protect your waistline and your heart. Stress is unavoidable, but we can change the way we perceive what happens around us.

Greenwich Hospital
November 20, 2012

Harris Health System
November 29, 2012

Image credit: Morguefile