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Health Strategies For The Holidays

The holiday season is known for bringing people together. But some people experience deep psychological stress as a result of holiday activities. Holiday stress can drive people to drink too much, eat too much, eat the wrong foods, keep unusual hours, stifle feelings, alter their routines, and generally fail to take care of themselves. Understanding some of the pitfalls of the holiday experience can lead to effective defense strategies.

Eating Strategies

Many people overeat during the holiday season. Let’s face it, food is a major focus during the holiday season. Everybody brings it, cooks it, and is expected to eat it. It is often considered rude to not partake of the repast, to eat only small portions, or to avoid eating a dish a family member or friend of the family has prepared.

Some people can avoid overeating by portion control — after all, a single spoonful of every dish is only two platefuls. Other people use the shrunken-stomach method, starving themselves for 24 hours prior to the meal. Some even use the "I’m-saving-room-for-dessert" strategy. But when dessert rolls around, they have an obligation to try a bite of everything. After the meal, the surge of insulin makes people feel tired and ready for nap or a strong coffee or (or both).

Controlling Appetite

Appetite can be suppressed by eating a high-protein food snack an hour or two before the main meal. Taking appetite suppressants like L-phenylalanine (an amino acid) or phenylpropanolamine (an over-the-counter drug) may also assist appetite suppression by maintaining blood-sugar (and insulin) stability, however a high-protein food snack may be the healthiest route. Maintaining blood sugar stability is especially tricky with the prevalence of sweets and alcoholic beverages during the holiday season. Chocolate, cookies, candy, pumpkin pie, fruit cake, eggnog, brandy, mulled wine, and other “treats” cause rapid rise of blood sugar, rapid insulin secretion, and rapid fall of blood sugar. This can increase cravings for further sweets.

Alcohol also stimulates the liver to convert stored sugar (glycogen) into blood sugar (glucose). Alcohol-induced blood-sugar increases may be a source of alcohol cravings in alcoholics.

The Chemistry Behind Alcohol Defense Strategies

Alcohol is metabolized by the liver in a two-step process. Alcohol (ethanol) is first metabolized into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is then metabolized into acetate, commonly called acetic acid (or vinegar).

Unfortunately, a certain amount of acetaldehyde escapes hepatic (liver) metabolism and enters general circulation. Acetaldehyde is a potent nerve irritant and neurotoxin which causes a chemical process called cross-linking.

The body’s natural defense mechanism against acetaldehyde (and other aldehydes) is cysteine (an amino acid) and glutathione (a small cysteine-containing peptide). These vital molecules contain a sulfhydryl group (SH) which is chemically active against aldehydes.

Sulfur compounds can also exist in other forms which aren’t necessarily active. In methionine, for example, the sulfur is blocked by a methyl group. Oxidized sulfur compounds (called disulfides) are also inactive against aldehydes. Cystine, the oxidized form of cysteine, contains one disulfide group. Cystine can be reduced back to cysteine by vitamin C. Large supplemental doses of vitamin C maintain the sulfur pool in its reduced sulfhydryl form. This optimizes aldehyde-scavenging conditions in the body.

Sulfhydryl compounds are so effective at detoxifying aldehydes that, in a rat experiment, an LD-90 dose of acetaldehyde (the amount that will normally kill 90% of the animals) did not kill any of the cysteine-pretreated rodents.

This natural defense mechanism can be enhanced with a simple supplementary formula consisting of 200-500 mg of L-cysteine (with 3 or more times as much vitamin C) as an alcohol detoxification remedy, to be taken before drinking alcoholic beverages, and after. For heavy drinkers and for long-term drinking (over many hours), between-drink doses are also necessary. This formula has worked wonders in people who could only tolerate small amounts of alcohol, or could not consume alcohol on successive days. A high-potency B-complex vitamin, which includes the sulfur-containing vitamin thiamine (vitamin B-1) is also quite helpful.

Alkaline Stress

The natural ebb and flow of metabolism manifests in a circadian (daily) acid and alkaline swing in urine pH. The dominance of acid-generating metabolism promotes maximum energy utilization and mental alertness for daytime activities. The dominance of alkaline metabolism optimizes for cellular repair and sleep. During the alkaline phase of metabolism, cognitive performance declines.

During eating, especially with large meals, the stomach becomes more acidic as hydrochloric acid is secreted to digest the incoming meal. This causes a corresponding alkalinization in the rest of the body. This systemic alkalinization is often experienced as mental sluggishness or sleepiness. This is one of the reasons why many people choose to drink coffee or smoke cigarettes just after eating a meal. The short-term acidification from the stimulation of caffeine and nicotine serves as an antidote to the alkaline tide of digestion.

Different foods, activities and environmental influences serve to modify the balance between acidic and alkaline metabolic reactions. Protein-rich and fatty foods like meat, fish, hard cheeses, grains and nuts provide a surfeit of acidic nutrients, and carbohydrate-rich foods like vegetables, beans and fruits are alkalinizing. There are a few exceptions, like milk and soft-boiled eggs, which are alkalinizing, and tomatoes and cranberries, which are acidifying.
See our Acid / Alkaline page for more information.

Nutrients also selectively influence metabolic balance. Vitamins B-6 and B-12 are acidifying, and the other B vitamins are alkalinizing. Of the fat-soluble vitamins, vitamins A and D are acidifying, and vitamins E and K are alkalinizing. Of the minerals, calcium, magnesium, copper, selenium, and manganese are acidifying, while sodium, potassium, iron, zinc, and chromium are alkalinizing. Even drugs can have powerful selective influence on metabolism. Antibiotics and antifungals are acidifying, while aspirin and opiates are alkalinizing.

The pH Boomerang

The metabolic influence of some substances is not so straightforward. Refined sugars, ice cream, coffee (caffeine), chocolate (caffeine and theobromine), alcohol, and recreational drugs have an initial, short-term acidifying effect which later becomes potently alkalinizing.

The initial acidification from these “stimulating” substances provides a mental lift. Concentration and attention immediately improve. But this gratification is short-lived and a profoundly alkaline momentum becomes dominant. This extreme alkalinization causes mental fuzziness, lack of concentration, and sleepiness — and a need for further stimulation. This metabolic boomerang can be a powerful force for addictive behavior.

Addiction, Depression and Chocolate

In addition to the gratification of chocolate’s short-term acidification, chocolate also has been reported to contain phenethylamine (PEA), a metabolite of the catecholamine neurotransmitter norepinephrine, or noradrenaline as it used to be called. Norepinephrine is the brain’s version of adrenaline, and PEA tends to be produced in highest amounts in people who are “in love.” Much of the depression resulting from falling out of love may be due to PEA withdrawal. It is hypothesized that chocolate can and does provide a partial substitute for being in love for many people.

Holiday Depression

Depression can also result from seasonal influences. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a widespread problem that tends to occur exclusively in the winter months when the days are shortest. Phototherapy has been used successfully to treat it, and increased pineal activity may be the therapeutic influence. Melatonin may be even more effective. The winter is also the time of greatest incidence of suicide. Whether such actions are the result of holiday dietary stress, SAD, holiday emotional stress, or combinations of all, is not fully known. The general medical treatments for depression involve stimulation of the brain neurotransmitters, like serotonin (made from the amino acid L-tryptophan), norepinephrine (made from phenylalanine and tyrosine) and dopamine (made from phenylalanine, tyrosine and L-dopa). Correcting neurotransmitter deficiencies prior to the holiday season should make one more resistant to the depressing influences of holiday stresses.

Food Choices and Allergies

Acidic stimulation can also be provided by allergic reactions to chemicals found in foods. The allergic reaction involves an immune response mediated by tissue hormones called prostaglandins. These prostaglandins directly counteract alkalinity. The acidification resulting from food allergies, causes the same mental stimulation that is produced from drugs like caffeine, nicotine and theobromine. This accounts for the observation that our favorite foods tend to be the ones to which we’re allergic.

Dieters: Take It Slow and Steady

Most people will start planning their New Year's weight loss resolutions over the holidays (as they inevitably do every year). Start with realistic, achievable goals. Don't expect to become "thin" overnight. Experts agree that slow, steady weight loss is healthier than a quick fix or remaining overweight. You should try to lose no more than a couple of pounds per week after the holiday season. Anymore than this will come back with a vengeance.

There are no magic pills, potions or quick fixes that will ever replace healthy lifestyles combining good diet sense and exercise. While this can be frustrating, slow and steady weight loss is the only way to avoid "yo-yo dieting," where you lose a great deal of weight, only to regain it within a few months or years. There are no miracles in weight loss; go for steady progress toward a healthier life and you will reap the long-term benefits in no time.

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