Does the above chart seem familiar?
It is a prospective study of weight change through the year from nearly 3,000 people from three large countries.
It has a stunning conclusion: nearly 50% of all weight gain occurs during the end of the year holiday season.
In just 6 weeks, we gain more weight than the rest of the year combined, and may never fully lose it (without significant effort).
Over the years, this cumulative weight gain really adds up.
The researchers even conclude “the less one gains, the less one then has to worry about trying to lose it.”
Yes it might sound scary, but it is actually a huge opportunity to maintain health while still enjoying the holidays.
It starts with understanding why this weight gain happens, and navigating this 6-week period better.
Hint: it’s not just about social over-eating and delicious comfort food. The holiday season brings celebration, joy, and overlooked stress, including:
- Busy schedules
- Hectic and crowded travel
- Overwhelming holiday shopping and planning
- Financial anxiety
- Increased alcohol intake
- Irritation when having to interact with that certain family member
- Sleep disruption
- Exercise… what’s that???
As you enjoy that comfort food, these sources of stress strongly influence your metabolism, energy regulation, and fat storage.
So, what do we do when holiday fun comes with inevitable stress?
Strategies to minimize holiday stress
There are a few simple ways to reduce the damage:
Small digestive resets: Consider a short fast the day after a big meal. It may feel hard, especially if you drank alcohol, but waiting at least 16 hours after a big meal can help your digestive system reset and help balance out your overall caloric intake.
Sleep tweaks: Pack ear plugs and a sleep mask to increase sleep quality by mitigating noise and light. Try not to eat or drink alcohol right before bed.
Circadian rhythm hacks: If you’re changing time zones, temporary use of melatonin before bed can help adjust faster. Step outside and get morning sunlight to reinforce circadian rhythm.
Metabolism hacks: Moderately intense exercise before big meals can help shuttle those extra calories to muscle repair rather than to fat storage. Even exercising the day before a big meal can help! These workouts do not have to be long.
Anxiety and mental stress hack: learn, practice and use proper deep breathing to instantly activate your parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system and change your mindset while improving your mental state.
Use heart rate variability to help you
Heart rate variability (HRV) can help you get better results from these strategies with less overall effort.
This is because HRV helps reveal which of the discussed “hidden holiday stresses” are impacting you the most and if your tweaks are working.
You don’t have to get a perfect night’s sleep every night. But if your sleep is disrupted from travel or festivities, it will most likely show up in your HRV scores.
A yellow or red morning HRV indicator after disrupted sleep can help warn you that food cravings and energy levels may temporarily be worse than normal. The good news is that you have a perfectly objective excuse to take a nap or go to bed earlier!
You can also test out different strategies for mitigating the damage of poor sleep:
A refreshing walk outside in natural light, a few minutes of downtime in a quiet room, and some clean eating can all help you bounce back more quickly from disrupted sleep during the holiday season.
Alcohol and high quality melatonin can both help you fall asleep, but beware! Alcohol often disrupts sleep quality, which is just as important, if not more important, than the number of hours you sleep. And no sleep aid is 1:1 a replacement for natural, high quality sleep.
A more sustainable strategy to fall asleep faster that also boosts sleep quality is to get some daytime exercise and avoid bright lights and stimulation 1-2 hours before bed. Your body and HRV will thank you afterwards.
Speaking of alcohol, remember when a glass of wine a day was good for you?
Whether or not alcohol is truly “healthy” or not matters little around holiday festivities. What is clear is that most people have a tipping point where alcohol goes from having a small effect on health to an extremely large effect on health (at least acutely).
Morning HRV readings can drop for several days after a night of drinking!
Using HRV and isolating a few other variables, you may be able to find out if there is a large difference between 3 and 4 alcoholic drinks in a night for you, or whether cocktails or beer or wine have a bigger impact to your health.
The point of this experiment is not to kill the fun. The point is to find out how much you can enjoy yourself without trashing your sleep, cravings, HRV, and energy levels for the following 3 days.
The type of drinks and the tipping point for quantity seems to be different for different people, so a little pre-holiday experimentation may be in order (for the sake of science, of course!).
Interestingly, our elite athletes and sports teams also find that alcohol has a MAJOR impact on competition performance and HRV and find this experimentation to be helpful if their hard-charging athletes won’t completely abstain.
What about the food?
When talking weight gain, we also need to talk about food. The end of the year is often full of treats, sweets, and festivities.
For starters, just like alcohol, certain foods and food timings are going to disrupt your sleep. Eating processed foods, sugary foods, and eating late can all impact sleep quality, which often shows up immediately in next-day HRV scores.
We also tend to eat a lot more carbohydrates around the holidays and exercise a lot less. Carbohydrates are like rocket fuel to the body and are best used to fuel physical exercise.
Excess carbohydrates combined with little or no exercise is a recipe for fat storage and maybe even insulin resistance – a self perpetuating loop.
What to do?
On days in which your HRV is abnormally low or high (yellow or red, for example), your cravings for carbohydrates and rich foods will likely increase. So when HRV is off, try to:
- Stay hydrated. Drink extra water (not sugary drinks). Even better if the water has some minerals and electrolytes in it.
- Up the nutrients. If possible, eat more nutrient dense vegetables as soon as you can. Supplementation is a decent second choice.
- Eat anti-inflammatory foods. Antioxidants and clean foods can immediately help lower inflammation in the body and reduce digestive stress – promoting faster recovery and better energy.
- Do light exercise. It’s a worthy goal to move your body every single day. Especially on days when HRV is off, some light exercise or movement can help clear your mind, clear waste from the body, reduce cravings, boost energy, and increase sleep quality.
Your breath, when done properly (nasal diaphragmatic breathing), is a simple and powerful tool for stress reduction.
Different types of breathing produce different responses in the cardiovascular and autonomic nervous systems.
Most of us have “learned” as adults to take 12-18 breaths per minute, often using our chest to power the inhales and exhales through our mouths.
- Unlike this mouth breathing, slow diaphragmatic nasal breathing has several major benefits:
- It provides oxygen to the lower lobes of the lungs, which are imbued with parasympathetic (“rest and relax”) nerve endings.
- It produces nitric oxide, a bronchodilator and vasodilator that helps to lower blood pressure and improve oxygen absorption.
- It stimulates the vagus nerve, the primary controller of the autonomic nervous system.
The right kind of breathing stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, changes your mindset, improves your mental state, and increases your heart rate variability (HRV).
Luckily, measuring heart rate variability (HRV) gives you direct feedback showing you when you do it correctly. Here’s how:
- Log in to the Elite HRV app and put on your CorSense HRV sensor
- Record a 1-minute HRV reading, breathing naturally in a relaxed position
- Turn on the Guided Breathing function (in the Options in the top right corner of the Reading screen).
- Adjust breathing to be slightly lower than your natural breathing pace (it doesn’t need to be exact, 8-10 breaths per minute is a good starting point).
- When breathing correctly, you should see changes in your live HR and HRV values. Typically HR will be lower with steady “peaks and valleys”, while HRV is higher.
- Experiment with breathing pace and pauses between exhales and inhales, and even add music, meditation or mindfulness.
We recommend doing this immediately after your Morning Readiness Reading – since you’re already all set up!
Over time, this HRV biofeedback teaches you new awareness and control of this powerful breathing process.
Then, you begin to use it in real life situations, where the biggest benefits and lasting results are achieved.
Hopefully these tips give you a few “Aha!” moments, fun experiments to try with HRV, and a jump start to your New Year resolutions!
If you decide to pursue any of these sleep, alcohol, nutrition and breathing practices, make sure you have an HRV-compatible sensor, like CorSense.
Know of other tips and tricks to combat holiday stress, or help pursue those New Year resolutions? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Otherwise, we’ll continue to monitor the research and update this article as we learn more!