Winter Wellness: 5 Tips for Protecting Your Gut and Brain Health This Holiday Season

Beautiful blonde woman holding sparklers at party and smiling with her friends.

Photo credit: Depositphotos

Although this holiday season may look socially different than years past, and hopefully years ahead, we should still prepare for added stress, limited sleep and overindulgence in traditional holiday fare. For many, anxiety, sadness and depression are brought on by the holidays and in light of the current pandemic, these emotions will be heightened for many. This can take a great toll on our health, particularly our brain and gut health.

In fact, we seemingly don’t have a problem with one, without it affecting the other. The brain and gut are intimately connected, which means that triggering factors that affect one, will ultimately affect the other. An imbalanced intestine can send signals to the brain, just as an imbalanced brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause, or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression (Harvard).

Patients who suffer from autoimmune disorders can be among those who suffer the greatest during the holiday season. Gut dysbiosis, or imbalance of the intestinal microorganisms, plays a major role in the development of autoimmune diseases. Conversely, good gut health is vital to the management of autoimmune-related symptoms. With the connection between the gut and brain being so significant, you can see how there could be a vicious cycle between mental wellness, gut function and overall physical health and how the heightened emotions of the holidays and what they look like this year, might trigger this cycle, especially for those who are autoimmune-compromised.

To help manage the rigorous affects that Holiday Season 2020 could have on us, here are five tips for protecting your brain and gut health:

  1. Limit inflammatory foods – It is so easy to overindulge in the delicious traditions of the holidays. Unfortunately, many of the seasonal favorites come with inflammatory side effects that can spike the autoimmune response or even trigger the onset of autoimmune diseases. Alcohol, sugary foods, gluten, dairy and processed meats are just a few inflammatory foods that we should all try to avoid. It’s fine to treat yourself but do it in moderation. If you have known sensitivities to foods, avoid those too, as they may cause added inflammation. Also make sure to add in plenty of green veggies and whole foods that are rich in nutrients. Remember to eat for your health and pay special attention to appropriate portions. 
  1. Get plenty of sleep – A lack of sleep can cause heightened emotions, sensitivity and difficulty focusing. At an already emotional time of year, adequate sleep is especially important. With the current climate making travel and family gatherings risky, many will struggle emotionally, and a lack of sleep can intensify that. If you are having trouble sleeping, speak to your healthcare provider, as it could also be an indicator of gut imbalance.
  1. Seek counseling – This is a difficult year for everybody. Therapists and psychologists are here to help. Don’t let the COVID-19 blues or the holidays take control of your life. Seeking therapy to learn to manage or cope with your feelings is not something to be embarrassed about. In fact, according to a poll conducted in mid-July, 53 percent of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been significantly impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. The CDC offers resources for those struggling with stress and anxiety due to COVID-19 or otherwise. Take control of your mental health just as well as your physical health.
  1. Spend extra time outdoors – Megan Riehl, PsyD, gastrointestinal psychologist and clinical director of the gastrointestinal behavioral health program at Michigan Medicine, recommends readjusting our mindsets about quality time outdoors. She says, “We can significantly benefit from being outside in the winter. The emotional benefits of fresh air and sunshine, coupled with the physical activity of walking, hiking or cruising in a wheelchair, are a win-win situation.” So bundle up if it’s cold and take in the fresh outdoors.
  1. Proactive Health Management – Routine physicals and testing are essential to health management. The “What I don’t know, won’t hurt me” adage is not conducive to living a long, healthy life. Rather than waiting for something to be wrong and then trying to fix it, maintain your health. The same way we get oil changes and routine maintenance on our cars, we must do the same for optimal body health. 

Some of the signs of an unhealthy gut include irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, bloating, constipation, unexplained weight gain or loss and fatigue. If you present with any of these symptoms, or sleeplessness, anxiety or depression, seek the care of your primary care physician. Cyrex Laboratories offers the Array 10 – Multiple Food Immune Reactivity Screen™. This test measures reactivity to 180 food antigens, assisting in the early detection of dietary-related triggers of autoimmune reactivity. This test is highly recommended for anybody with unexplained symptoms whether gastrointestinal, neurological, dermatological or behavioral in nature.

A healthy gut will produce the mood-boosting brain chemical, serotonin. A healthy brain will keep the gut happy. This gut-brain relationship is one that must be nurtured. Take notice and take care. Happy Holidays!

Dr. Chad Larson, NMD, DC, CCN, CSCS, Advisor and Consultant on Clinical Consulting Team for Cyrex Laboratories. Dr. Larson holds a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine degree from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Southern California University of Health Sciences. He is a Certified Clinical Nutritionist and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He particularly pursues advanced developments in the fields of endocrinology, orthopedics, sports medicine, and environmentally-induced chronic disease.