A Happy, Stress-Free Holiday – Part 4: Setting up for a happy new year

As each year completes its cycle I too, complete my own series of reflections on my successes, disappointments and convictions to live a better new year.  Despite my steely resolve at the start of each January, every December ends with a vague sense of unfulfilled potential.

This blog is for those who are sick of the revolution of incomplete new year vows and year end regrets. By reading and completing the following points you should have a basic outline for mastering your goals this new year by the end of this blog.

1. Name your goal.  What is your top goal this new year? By naming the one, most important goal, you pool your resources to achieving this top goal. Having successfully accomplished it, you can then target other goals with a greater sense of confidence.

My top goal is to __________________________________________________________.

(Ex. My top goal is to live a healthier life).

2. Know your “why”. By clarifying why we want to achieve a goal, it makes the goal more personally relevant.  The “whys” behind our goals also act as the motivational drive that keeps us going when the going gets tough.

Note: Intrinsic goals for self improvement (ex. personal growth, meaningful relationships) are more likely to be under your control and can help build a sense of confidence and well-being. In comparison, extrinsic goals are reliant on outside factors (ex. money, beauty, fame). Though they can be a great source of motivation, they are also more likely to disappoint, especially when you are basing your motivators on a comparison to an outside factor beyond your control (ex. looking like Taylor Swift).

My top goal is to __________ because ___________, ___________, and ___________.

(Ex. My top goal is to live a healthier life because I want to look like Taylor Swift.  — extrinsic).

(Ex. My top goal is to live a healthier life because I want to travel without debility. –intrinsic). This is a personal goal of mine because my chronic joint pain has interfered with many of my positive experiences.

3. Break it down. Having a lofty goal such as “living a healthier life” can be difficult to accomplish unless you reduce it into realistic “mini-goals” more easily achieved.  What are some mini-goals that can help you reach your ultimate goal?

To achieve my goal of __________, I will ____________,   ___________, and ___________.

(Ex. To achieve my goal of living a healthier life, I will eat a healthier diet, exercise, and relax).

4. Break it down some more. If your mini-goals aren’t specific enough, make them more specific and attainable.

To achieve my mini-goal of _________, I will __________, ___________, and ________.

(Ex. To achieve my mini-goal of eating a healthier diet, I will make my meals home cooked, I will eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day and I will drink 8 glasses of water each day).

5. Make it realistic.  If your goal is something completely out of your comfort zone it will more likely deter you from trying. Create a goal that makes sense to you and word it to work for you.

(Ex. I will drink 8 glasses of water each day vs. I will drink 1 glass of water in the morning, one before each meal and one glass at night.)

6. Make it fun. Create self-challenges to capitalize on your competitive side.

(Ex. Take a sip of water every time I hear my name called, or every time the phone rings.  Or aim to finish a 1L bottle of water by the end of the work day, then increase it to 1.5L)

7. Commit yourself to your goal. Some things are more easily said than done, by committing yourself to your goal you are more accountable and more likely to carry them out.  Some great ways to commit yourself is to write out a contract to yourself or to make your intentions public so that you are bound to what you’ve told others.

When writing your self-contract, be sure to incorporate the points above and make the contract realistic for yourself. Include dates for each mini-goal you’d like to achieve and sign it as you would any official document.

8.  Recognize your successes and don’t let slip-ups discourage you.  There is no perfect path to success, there will be mistakes and points of weakness.  Don’t forget to praise yourself for the successes each day and to recognize the steps you’ve taken towards your goal, no matter how small (even if it is drinking just one glass of water more than usual instead of your goal of 8).

A big thank you to all those who’ve followed me and supported me with my venture as a blogger.  I wish you all a happy holiday and new year.  I look forward to sharing more on health and naturopathic medicine. See you in 2014!

A Happy, Stress-Free Holiday Series:

Part 1: Knowing when you’re stressed

Part 2: Control your stressors:  Creating change and avoiding over-indulgence

Part 3: Handling holiday stress

Part 4: Setting up for a happy new year 


A Happy, Stress-Free Holiday – Part 3: Handling Holiday Stress

nutrition for stressLast week we discussed ways to change, reduce and control holiday stressors.  This week we’ll look at ways to strengthen your body’s ability to deal with the impact of holiday stressors that can’t be avoided.

The body’s main stress management hormone cortisol, is produced by our adrenal organs  Cortisol is released in response to stress. It increases blood sugar to fuel our muscles for fight or flight and shuts down non-essential rest and digest functions.  Cortisol is necessary to prepare our body for stress in the short-term, but in excess over the long-term, it can throw off hormonal balance impacting reproductive, digestive, immune and metabolic functions.

Below are some tips for protecting your body against the negative effects of stress naturally.


1. Reduce sugar: cortisol works against insulin (the hormone that lowers blood sugar) and if increased for long periods, cortisol can cause blood sugar dysregulation increasing risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome and inflammatory conditions in the body. In order to avoid adding fuel to the fire, limit excessive sugar intake and think twice before you polish off that tin of Christmas sugar cookies.

2. Choose magnesium rich foods:  Magnesium is a mineral that helps to relax tense muscles and prevent or reduce migraine headaches. It is needed for over 300 metabolic processes that regulate blood pressure, blood sugar levels, protein synthesis and proper nerve and muscle functions.  Foods rich in magnesium include: almonds, spinach, peanuts, cashews, soy milk and black beans[1]

3. Incorporate foods with B vitamins:  As stress increases, so does your body’s demand for nutrients.  This is especially true of the B vitamins which play a significant role in the function of our nervous system.  Holiday libations can be particularly hard on our vitamin B1 supply, while holiday stress can increase the adrenal gland’s need for vitamin B5.  Anxiety, depression and mood disorders are commonly associated with B6 deficiency, while a B12 deficiency can lead to nervous system symptoms such as tingling, poor memory and concentration, and fatigue.  Though many people require supplementation with a good B complex, foods commonly rich in the B vitamins include:

B1 (thiamine)[2]
  • Beef liver, pork, egg, beans and peas, nuts and seeds
B5 (pantothenic acid)[3]
  • Beef liver, meats, poultry corn, cauliflower, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, avocado, legumes, egg yolk, sweet potato, salmon
B6 (pyridoxine)[4]
  • Chickpeas, beef liver, tuna, salmon, chicken breast, turkey
B12 (cobalamine)[5]
  • Beef liver, clams, fish, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products
Note: many grain products (such as cereals and breads) and nutritional yeasts are fortified with B vitamins


1. Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng): An herb commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine as a tonic for fatigue, stress and weakness, it is well known for its adaptogenic properties (helps the body adapt to stress). In addition to being great for stress, panax also lowers blood sugar levels and stimulates the immune system. This is one herb that seems to be tailor-made for the holidays.

2. Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera): Like panax, ashwaganda is best known for its adaptogenic properties and immune supporting ability. This herb has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine (a traditional medicine native to India), and one of my favorite herbs to use for promoting relaxation.

Rhodiola, shown to increase serotonin levels.

Rhodiola, shown to increase serotonin levels.

3. Golden root or rose root (Rhodiola rosea):  Well known for its ability to quell anxiety rhodiola, another adaptogenic herb, has been shown in studies to reduce irritability, fatigue and insomnia.  Its ability to reduce stress, anxiety and depression is often attributed to its effect on serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmitters (the feel good chemical messengers of the brain).

It’s important to keep in mind that the above tips for managing holiday stress work best in conjunction with a lifestyle that promotes well-being.  The vitamins, mineral and herbs discussed here can be helpful but must be complemented with regular, healthy living habits which we’ll discuss next week for “part 4: setting up for a stress-less new year” of the “Stress-free Holiday Series”. See you next week!

Part 1: Knowing when you’re stressed

Part 2: Control your stressors:  Creating change and avoiding over-indulgence

Part 3: Handling holiday stress

Part 4: Setting up for a stress-less new year (next week)

[1] National Institutes of Health.  Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Magnesium. [internet] 2013 Nov 24 [cited 2013 Dec 19]. Available from: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/
[2] National Institutes of Health, Medline Plus. Thiamin. [internet] 2013 Oct 31 [cited 2013 Dec 19]. Available from: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002401.htm
[3] Ehrlich SD. Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid). University of Maryland Medical Center. [internet] 2013 Aug 5 [cited 2013 Dec 19]. Available from: http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/vitamin-b5-pantothenic-acid
[4]National Institutes of Health.  Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin B6. [internet] 2011 Sep 15 [cited 2013 Dec 19]. Available from: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB6-HealthProfessional/
[5] National Institutes of Health.  Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin B12. 
[internet] 2011 Jun 24 [cited 2013 Dec 19]. Available from: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-QuickFacts/

Have a Happy, Stress-Free Holiday – Part 2: Control your stressors: Creating change and avoiding over-indulgence

As the holidays roll closer and our schedules begin to fill, an important part of stress management is the ability to feel some control over how you spend your holdiay.  Part 2 of the “Stress-Free Holiday” series is about creating change to make your plans more manageable and your holiday more enjoyable.  Take some time today to:

1. Remember what’s important for YOUR holiday

holiday stress1

With so many tasks to complete, events to RSVP for, and sales to

capitalize on; it’s easy to be caught up with the details of creating the perfect holiday.  Take some time to think about what is most important to you this season and define the true meaning of the holidays for YOU:

I could not enjoy my holiday without:__________________________________________.

What I’m most looking forward to this holiday is:_________________________________.

This holiday I am most grateful for:____________________________________________.

2. Redefine your holiday traditions

Holiday decorating was something I enjoyed because we did it as a family. In the last few years I have done it alone. This year, instead of decorating solo, my family and I have decided to cook dinner together. We’ve lost some of the decorative twinkle, but regaining our time together as a family is more important to me.  Take some time to think about traditions that you and your family may have outgrown and list some alternatives that remain true to your holiday values.  Based on your answers to the questions above, do your holiday traditions align with what’s important to you?  Are there any traditions that used to be inspiring but have now become a chore?

Example:  This holiday, instead of putting up Christmas decorations alone, I will cook dinner together with my family because it allows me to spend time with my loved ones.

Your turn:  This holiday, instead of ___________________, I will ____________________ because it allows me to ______________________________________________________.

3. Enlisting Help

This tip isn’t just for the holidays, but for anyone who has a busy schedule and often finds themselves feeling overwhelmed.  It can be easy to get caught up in the “I have to do this, and I have to do that” holiday dialogue.  The easiest answer is to ask for help. For example, if you don’t have time to gift wrap, get someone to do it for you.  One great way is through Epilepsy Toronto’s gift wrapping campaign hosted by many malls in the GTA (why not help others in addition to helping yourself?).

This holiday I will ask for help with ____________________________________________.

4. Avoid over-indulgence

The holidays are often synonymous with indulgence.  With all the gift exchanges and dinners, it’s easy to buy and eat a little more than you should. To help decrease stress, consider changing the way you give gifts and the way you enjoy holiday meals. Too much can leave our financial senses and stomachs overwhelmed.

holiday stress

Gift giving

a)  Reduce the number of gifts you need to give by opting to do Secret Santa or a Christmas gift raffle instead of buying individual gifts.  This will help reduce holiday expenses without cutting down on holiday cheer.

b)  Consider setting a budget limit when you’re buying gifts.  Limits help clarify expectations for all involved and avoids the guilt of having spent too much or too little.

Holiday meal times

Overdoing it at the holiday buffet table can leave us with indigestion, weight-gain fears and guilt. Talk about stress! Use the following tips this holiday to keep your festive meals in balance.

a) Eat at home beforehand to avoid overdoing it at the party.

b) Limit your holiday meal to one trip through the buffet line and serve yourself one plate.

c) Be present with your food. Holiday parties can be the worst place to eat and digest. Between the festive chit chat and loud music, it can be hard to get into rest and digest mode.  Count the number of times you chew and take notice of the colors and flavours of the food you’re about to eat.  Mindful eating is linked to better satisfaction and satiation and lower likelihood of over indulging.

I hope this blog has inspired you to take charge and work towards being stress-free this holiday. Next week, we’ll discuss healthy and natural ways to help your body handle stress. Stay tuned!

Part 1: Knowing when you’re stressed

Part 2: Control your stressors:  Creating change and avoiding over-indulgence

Part 3: Handling holiday stress

Part 4: Setting up for a stress-less new year

Have a Happy, Stress-Free Holiday – Part 1: Knowing when you’re stressed

stressStress occurs when we face a real or perceived threat that forces our bodies to adapt in the face of increased demand.  Stress can be both good and bad.

Eustress (good stress) is short-term stress that acts as a motivational force and is often what we experience when meeting a deadline or studying for an exam.

Distress (bad stress) can be both short- and long-term and tends to affect us negatively.  We typically experience distress when we are confronted with a challenge that we can’t–or feel we can’t–cope with.  Causes of distress can be due to circumstances such as chronic illness, the death of a loved one, a car accident or job loss.

Many of us experience the burden of stress in different ways.  It can affect us cognitively, behaviourally, physically and emotionally.  It is important for us to tune into our bodies so that we can recognize when we’re stressed. Some examples of stress include1:

Cognitive symptoms Behavioural symptoms Physical symptoms Emotional symptoms
Memory problems
Inability to concentrate
Poor judgment
Anxious or racing thoughts
Constant worrying
Eating more or less
Sleep changes
Self isolation
Procrastination or neglecting responsibilities
Aches and pains
Diarrhea or constipation
Nausea, dizziness
Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
Loss of sex drive
Frequent colds
Irritability or short temper
Agitation, inability to relax
Feeling overwhelmed
Sense of loneliness and isolation
Depression or general unhappiness

What symptoms do you experience when you’re stressed?  Take a moment and fill in the following blanks

When I’m stressed my cognitive symptom(s) are: _________________________________________.

When I’m stressed my behavioural symptom(s)are: ______________________________________.

When I’m stressed my physical symptom(s) are: _________________________________________.

When I’m stressed my emotional symptom(s) are: ________________________________________.

Note these symptoms in the future when you’re overwhelmed.  Becoming aware of how your body experiences stress and learning to recognize your symptoms is the first step to dealing with stress healthily.  Only by becoming aware of our imbalances and the resulting discomfort, do we feel the need to change.

With increased holiday demands (gift shopping, being a gracious host, cooking feasts, attending multiple events), stress can build and really impact our health.  When we experience stress our body is thrown into sympathetic (fight or flight) mode which causes an increase of cortisol and adrenaline.  This then shuts down our parasympathetic system (rest and digest mode) resulting in2,3,4:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Reduced digestive function

When stress becomes chronic it can adversely affect our health placing us at risk for conditions such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Mental health issues (generalized anxiety, depression)
  • Diabetes and obesity
  • Inflammatory bowel issues
  • Chronic low functioning immunity leading to recurring bouts of colds/flus or infection

To prevent both the short term effects and the long-term health risks of holiday stress stay tuned for next week’s blog of the “Have a Happy Stress-Free Holiday” series.

Part 2: Control your stressors:  Creating change and avoiding over-indulgence (next week)

Part 3: Handling holiday stress

Part 4: Setting up for a stress-less new year

1.Smith M, Segal R, Segal J. Stress Symptoms, Signs & Causes: The effects of stress overload and what you can do about it [internet]. 2013  Nov; Available from: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_signs.htm
2.Mayo Clinic. Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behaviour. [internet]. 2013 Jun. [cited 2013 Dec 11]. Available from:http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-symptoms/SR00008_D
3.Segerstrom SC, Miller GE. Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychol Bull. 2004 Jul; 130(4): 601-30.
4.Nakata A. Psychosocial Job Stress and Immunity: a systematic review. Methods Mol Biol. 2012; 934:39-75.
5.Marvar PJ, Harrison DG. Stress-dependent hypertension and the role of T lymphocytes. Exp Physiol. 2012 Nov; 97(11) 1161-7.
6.Yusuf S, et al. Effect of potentially modifiable risk factors associated with myocardial infarction in 52 countries (the INTERHEART study): case-control study. Lancet. 2004 Sep 11-17;364(9438):937-52.
7.Das S, O’Keefe JF. Behavioral cardiology: recognizing and addressing the profound impact of psychosocial stress on cardiovascular health. CurrAtheroscler Rep. 2006 Mar;8(2):111-8.
8.Heraclides A, Chandola T, Witte DR,  Brunner EJ. Psychosocial stress at work doubles the risk of type 2 diabetes in middle-aged women: evidence from the Whitehall 2 study. Diabetes Care. 2009 Dec;32(12):2230-5.

Look Forward to a Happy, Stress-Free Holiday!

As Christmas music blares while I mentally calculate a holiday discount; I can’t help but think that the holidays, as bright and glowy as they seem, can be a stressful time.  Company parties, family plans and Christmas shopping to boot, our schedules are as packed as the mall parking lots.  With all the hustle and bustle, this is a perfect time to hone our stress management skills and build our capacity to meet life’s ongoing demands.

Being busy should not equate to daily headaches, fatigue or a sense of overwhelming anxiety.  Listed below are some tips that will be discussed in the upcoming weeks on how you can look forward to a happy, stress-free holiday:


Part 1: Knowing when you’re stressed

Part 2: Control your stressors:  Creating change and avoiding over-indulgence

Part 3: Handling holiday stress

Part 4: Setting up for a stress-less new year

Follow my blogs through December, as I discuss different stress management strategies to survive the holiday hoopla. 

To wrap up the year on a healthy note please email me to schedule an appointment for your personalized treatment plan.  For more information about me, Sophia Ma, ND visit www.EnvisionHealthND.com.