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Go Ask Mom

Duke Medicine: Give yourself the gift of a healthier holiday

Posted December 6, 2010

Here are some tips from Duke Medicine for staying healthy and happy during the holidays -- and all winter long.

The Skinny on Dry Skin

Cold weather and low humidity are tough on your skin. But Russell Hall, MD, chairman of the Department of Dermatology at Duke, says your favorite hand lotion can actually make the problem worse. Lotions are more water than oil, and water dries the skin, not moisturizes it. Instead, use a cream (more oil than water) or, best of all, use an ointment, like Vaseline (ointments are pure oil, or oil-like). "But it's a trade-off, as we all know," Hall says. "There's the social problem of going out and looking all greasy."

Coping with Stress

According to Redford Williams, MD, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke, there are steps you can take to minimize holiday stress, anxiety, or depression. First, be prepared for triggers that you know will be there, such as heavy holiday traffic or a relative’s criticism at a holiday party. Then, when it happens, take a minute to take a deep breath. Take steps beforehand to avoid known triggers, if you can. Exercise -- a good workout will work off the effects of stress hormones. And finally, make a point to be kind and thoughtful. Williams says science has found health benefits from simply being nice. He says research shows people experience a "helpers high" or feeling of personal satisfaction by doing things to make other people feel good.


Holiday stress can disturb your sleep, which can impact your overall health, says Andrew Krystal, MD, director of Duke's Sleep Research Laboratory and Insomnia Clinic. To increase your chances of a good night's sleep, first of all, don’t worry about it. For people with insomnia, the key is to not increase the focus and attention on sleep and overemphasize the importance of sleep in life, says Krystal. Don't try to compensate for a poor night’s sleep by going to bed earlier the next night: trying to force yourself to fall asleep earlier may mean more time lying awake in bed, which makes insomnia worse. Try to stick to the same window of time to go to bed each night. Avoid caffeine or alcohol before bedtime. While some people think that alcohol can help them fall asleep, it can actually have the opposite effect. If you are having trouble falling asleep, get up and stay out of bed until you are tired.

Holiday travel can make sleep problems more challenging. When traveling to a new time zone that is only two to three hours different from your own, try to adapt to the new time as quickly as possible, says Krystal. For example, if you are traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast, stay up until it is your normal bedtime in the new time zone. If traveling the other direction and arriving after your typical bedtime, go to bed as soon as possible and wake up at your normal time in the new time zone. To help you wake up, get some natural sunlight in your eyes within 30 minutes of waking.

Don’t forget to exercise

Duke researchers Cris Slentz and Johanna Johnson have researched the benefits of varying amounts and intensity of exercise among moderately overweight, middle-aged men and women over an eight-month period. They found that walking just 30 minutes a day, six days a week is enough to bring about significant health benefits such as cutting the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, among other things. Plus, evidence suggests people stick better to exercise programs that call for activity at least four to five days a week. "We're not sure why, but we think that it's because of you do something four or more days a week, it's easier to become habitual," says Johnson.

Holiday mindfulness

The holidays, though filled with joy, also add more to an already full to-do list. Use mindfulness to help cope, says Jeff Greeson, a health psychologist at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine. Instead of reacting to things that should have been done, take a moment to be, rather than do. Mindfulness means dropping into the present moment and noticing what's around us. Use mindfulness when you're eating, waiting in line or stuck in traffic. "Notice the tastes and textures of your food," Greeson says. "See the colors that surround you. Those small moments can break you from that reactivity and enrich your entire life experience."

For more on having a happy, healthy holiday, go to for tips on sleep problems, exercise and being more mindful. And check out's Health Library for other tips and advice from Duke Medicine.


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