How to minimise damage to your health this Christmas – without spoiling the fun

Raise your glass?: Liz Hoggard explores the pitfalls of the party season
Raise your glass: Liz Hoggard explores the pitfalls of the party season - Andrew Crowley

“Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope,” the novelist Edith Wharton declared. I’m with Edith. The feather bed can wait. Growing up a bookish teenager in National Health glasses in the 1970s, I spent so long waiting for my real life to start, that I’ll never, ever turn a party down today.

But oh heavens, even for a dedicated party fiend like myself, Christmas is a tightrope, with so many of us clinging on for dear life as we navigate lunches, drinks, film trips and work parties. Often all on the same day.

Many of us feel a slight existential dread as the festive season approaches. You’re looking forward to it and you want it to be fun, but you’re concerned about the toll on your health (both physical and mental). Isn’t it slightly mad to try to cram a whole year’s pleasure into one week? By Boxing Day I want to retreat to a darkened room.

Part of the challenge is that there is no longer a one-size-fits-all family Christmas. Many of us spend alternative Christmas Days with friends or neighbours. And if you’re part of a ‘blend’ (especially if you meet later in life as a couple), there are twice as many invitations. You often end up with brunch at one family’s house, dinner at the other’s.

Party time: you want to have fun but it can take its toll at this time of year
Party time: relentless fun can take its toll at this time of year - Andrew Crowley

This year it’s my bloke Mike’s turn to celebrate Christmas Day with his kids (who are 23 and 18), but I’ll join them for Christmas Eve. Then I’ll jump in a taxi early on Christmas Day to go to a brilliant ‘waifs and strays’ party in Marylebone. Followed by lunch with another set of friends on Boxing Day. And, of course, we’ll have pre-Christmas catch-ups with respective parents and siblings the weekend before.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m very grateful to have these invitations. These are the people who give meaning to my life. But it’s a lot of drinking, calories, broken sleep and complex family dynamics.

According to research by gym experts, Mirafit, Christmas dinner racks up 1,499 calories (women will need to run for more than 2 hours to burn that off) – and I’m doing at least three of them! Plus, partygoers can down up to 4,000 extra calories in alcohol during the party season.

“It’s a perfect storm,” says sleep physiologist Guy Meadows. “We haven’t got time to go to the gym; we’re keeping irregular sleep-wake time; we’re eating late. We have heightened stress, whether it’s trying to make sure we’ve got all our work done, or the challenge of meeting up with extended family, and we are often sleeping in different environments as well.”

So in an attempt not to end up shattered and bloated again this year, I ask the experts how to minimise the damage, without spoiling the fun.

Stay on the straight and narrow when you’re drinking

“Put your glass down after a few sips and walk away,” advises alcohol reduction expert Georgia Foster. “It helps you to drink more consciously.”

A Jungian-trained psychologist and voice coach, Foster has hypnotised billionaires, politicians and musicians. Her task is to show us how to reprogramme our subconscious mind (which has an impact on bodily functions such as the heart, lungs and digestion) to need less alcohol.

Drink more consciously: take a few sips and then put your glass down
Drink more consciously: take a few sips and then put your glass down - Andrew Crowley

Every night before a party, I listen to her online hypnotherapy tapes, absorbing powerful messages about drinking more slowly, relishing every sip and alternating alcohol with water. To my amazement, I keep to two glasses of fizz.

Functional nutritionist Pauline Cox advises drinking kombucha or kefir water (“something with probiotics in it”) in between alcoholic drinks. Whereas Sleep School’s Guy Meadows, who has been running workshops for chronic insomnia sufferers since 2011, advises we stop drinking from late afternoon on Christmas Day. “Just to give your body an opportunity to metabolise it and get it out of the body before you sleep.”

Avoid bloat and weight gain when you’re tempted with rich food

“Hangovers cause our blood sugar to spike, which can set you off on that hormonal rollercoaster of wanting more starchy, sugary foods,” says Cox, author of Hungry Woman (Ebury Press). “So I make sure I don’t go out on an empty stomach. I have something vegetable-based or fibrous so my hunger levels aren’t really high.”

“One of my favourite tips is to start the day with protein – scrambled eggs with your toast, or nuts with your porridge to balance your blood sugar levels,” says nutritionist Madeleine Shaw, who has launched the digital wellness platform The Glow Space. “So you avoid that dip at 11am where you grab another mince pie.”

At parties steer clear of salty, fatty foods such as crisps. “The higher the dopamine spike, the more the brain will want to eat that food,” says Cox. “Olives are a really great choice, or hummus with vegetable sticks.” On Christmas Day, half her plate is vegetables – carrots, sprouts with a bit of bacon, something cruciferous like cauliflower cheese, and sauerkraut (adding acidity helps with digestion). “Really enjoy the day but find ways of getting the good stuff in first.”

Women over 40 are a little more insulin-resistant so she advises lower carb drinks and mixers. “Champagne or prosecco is relatively low in sugar. A vodka and coke has a lot of sugar, so go for soda water with lime juice which helps keep blood sugar stable,” says Cox. Shaw, meanwhile, always opts for red wine over sugary mulled wine.

Health experts suggests drinking something with probiotics in it between your alcoholic tipples
Experts recommend sipping kombucha in between your alcoholic tipples to avoid a hangover - Andrew Crowley

Dark chocolate is Cox’s treat. “It’s packed with a load of magnesium; it’s rich in antioxidants, and it contains copper which is really important for our iron levels.” Shaw recommends serving Christmas pudding with a dollop of Greek yoghurt. “It’s an amazing way of balancing your blood sugar levels and adding protein.”

However, she also stresses the importance of pleasure. “As a nutritionist it’s easy to get caught up thinking about macronutrients,” she says. “But actually food is joy. It brings families together and it’s really fun.”

Keep your body clock ticking and avoid social jet lag

Try to keep your sleep-wake schedule roughly the same as normal, advises Meadows. “If you go to bed later, that’s fine. But try to get up in the morning no more than an hour later. Social jet lag occurs simply by sleeping a little bit differently at the weekend and that tiny disruption leads us to experience sleeplessness, brain fog, nausea and lethargy.

“What happens with Christmas is we have huge desynchronisation to our body clock,” he adds. “We are going to bed later; we eat and drink at different times. So instantly our sleep-wake schedule is knocked out.” Also try to leave at least four hours between eating and sleeping. “We want to ring-fence that period of time leading up to sleep,” says Meadows.

Get off the sofa and fit in some exercise

It’s easy to be sedentary for Christmas week but we can build in exercise throughout the festivities, says Cox. She recommends walking to the party, or festive event rather than jumping in a taxi. “It sounds minor, but actually, the walk to and from the venue is going to bring down your blood sugar levels.”

She also likes to balance out food snacks with exercise snacks. “Don’t just sit down grazing on food and drink. Walk around and mingle,” she says. “Even heel raises will immediately help mop up blood sugars as they start to rise with food and alcohol. Or go to the bathroom and do a few squats to get the bigger muscles activated.” Shaw adds: “You can put on Christmas songs and dance around, or play charades, it doesn’t have to be squats and push-ups.”

The Christmas walk is a lifesaver, according to Meadows. “Getting outside in the morning light is really valuable. It’s going to hit the light-sensitive cells of your eyes which help synchronise you to the time zone you’re in, and prepare you for sleeping better that night,” he says.

“It will boost your serotonin levels, which improves the quality and depth of your sleep, and also boosts your mood to help you navigate the challenges of Christmas Day.” Plus, if you’ve got a lot of people staying in your house, being able to step away is a great way of diffusing stress.

Deal with tricky relatives and appreciate loved ones

To minimise rows, psychotherapist Stephen Joseph, author of Think Like A Therapist: Six Life-Changing Insights for Leading A Good Life (Piatkus), thinks we should focus on appreciation.

“Psychologists have done so many studies showing how gratitude and appreciation are top factors for wellbeing,” he says. “Before we go into family settings and see people, take time out to reflect on what we’re grateful for, who we have in our lives and what we appreciate about our relationship with them.

Cracking time: Christmas can be a time to reflect on our relationships
Cracking time: Christmas can be a time to reflect on our relationships - Andrew Crowley

“I’d dearly love to be able to pop in for a mince pie with my parents or my late wife, but I can’t because they’re dead. I’m sure lots of people are in the same boat. But when I look back on past Christmases, when I didn’t go back home or was caught up in squabbles, in hindsight I wish I had the wisdom I have now.

“Christmas is a time to switch on our appreciation,” he adds. “It dissolves all those negative emotions, so you don’t get to that place of irritation.”

Make time for yourself and enjoy it

It can be easy to wear yourself out doing lots of things you don’t want to do and feel too tired for the things you do. You need to put boundaries around your time, suggests Joseph.

“Tell yourself we’re going to visit X and we’re going to stay this amount of time and then leave,” he advises. “Or explain that you’re just not able to make it until the new year. Because we need to make time for ourselves to do the things that we get some pleasure and meaning from, so we’re not just caught up in a flurry of pleasing other people for a week.

“A really important point about this holiday is that we go into it on the back foot,” adds Meadows. “We go into it tired, light-deprived, our immunity is weakened, there are more coughs and colds, so we want to emerge from the Christmas break rested and restored, not having destroyed ourselves further.

“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just repay a bit of our sleep debt, eat mostly healthily, then enter into January with our energy reserves boosted?”