The health benefits of Thanksgiving are plentiful. Gratitude, good community, good digestion and whole foods all have salutatory benefits for you. And, some research suggests there is a possible significant drawback to all this good.
Gratitude Helps Well Being
Medical research is finally catching up with some basic concepts mother always knew: it is good to be thankful. A large body of research now suggests that gratitude can (1):
- Increase a person's well-being
- Be used to help both physical and emotional/spiritual disorders
- Improve sleep and help feeling refreshed when you wake up
Wow—what drug does all of the above, with no side effects?
Gratitude can take many forms. For instance, conscious thinking about the positive aspects of your life on a regular basis is a type of gratitude. Also, learning to appreciate and having a sense of awe of your environment: an example would be taking a long look at a flower, the clouds, or a water fall, and finding the wonder and amazement. You can look at a small cut healing on your skin and see the elegance and complexity of the healing power in your own body that no science can replicate.
Gratitude can manifest as saying 'thank you' and really meaning it. It can also take the shape of seeing the beauty and appreciating the quirks about the people in your life. It can also be simply appreciating the basic blessings you have, like food and shelter. Sometimes, it means seeing the life lessons in the challenging circumstances we face. It can also mean seeing challenging people as our not so much a personal nemesis, but instead as one of the universe's teachers there for us to learn.
In our practice, we are honored work with many patients who are challenged with difficult diseases: we are always amazed how so many people in that situation have the courage to focus on their blessings in the midst difficulty. As naturopathic physicians, we also see that those who can focus on gratitude as part of the process typically heal themselves faster and more completely.
Real Interaction—Real Immune Boosting
Getting together on Thanksgiving, being present with people you care about, and having real face toface in
teraction is very healthy for your body. Hugging has been shown to boost psychological well-being. Social community will increase immune function: research reveals that the more social circles a person has, the stronger the immune system can be. For instance, social community like book clubs, church activity, and being involved with a play can increase natural killer cell activity. Natural killer cells help fight cancer in your body.
And, it seems in the age of cyber 'social circles'—the less face to face contact people have, the more narrow their arteries become. The less hugs and direct contact people have, the less oxytocin they release (2). Oxytocin is a hormone that can prevent negative events of the heart—so keep those hugs coming.
Happier and Better Digestion
Thanksgiving is a day many of us will actually sit down and spend some time at the table. Sitting down to chew and eat a meal slowly will help digestion for the many of us who usually eat on the go and do not digest food very well. Most Americans eat in the car—in fact, 80% of car crashes involves some type of distraction, and food is considered one of the most leading distractors (3). When we sit down to eat, maybe have a little wine or bitter aperitif before a meal, and we take a whiff of the delicious aromas wafting from the kitchen, we stimulate production of our digestive enzymes, which is needed for all this food to be properly digested.
Good Food for Your Best Body
The actual foods we eat during Thanksgiving have some wonderful as well benefits. One favorite of ours is the cranberry. Cranberries are a vaccinium species berry (related to blueberry and lingonberry) that has shown wonderful benefits for protecting the inner lining of our blood vessels for people with heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. It is also a great way to keep bacteria from sticking to the linings of the kidneys and bladder for those prone to urinary tract infections. Pumpkin and sweet potatoes have fantastic beta-carotenes that give them their orange color. These carotenes powerful antioxidants that stop fatty acids from oxidizing in our vessels. Fat oxidation contributes to heart disease and inflammation. Corn has natural vitamin E. Turkey has some tryptophan, an amino acid that is a precursor to the feel good neurotransmitter called serotonin, and anything dark green has plenty of minerals, vitamins and fiber.
Thanksgiving Can Be Unhealthy?
So where can this happy holiday go wrong? Well, some astute researchers from the University of Oklahoma studied the before and after weights of 94 college and graduate students and found out the average weight gain was about 1 pound per person, with already overweight people tending to gain more weight (4). Although one pound does not sound like a whole lot, the researchers suggested that this weight gain is typically kept on through the holidays and into the New Year. The authors of the study suggested that if this weight is retained it can contribute to health issues.
Other studies have shown that the weight we gain during the holidays is 500% more, than what we gain during all the other weeks. Since Thanksgiving is the start of the holiday season, it is not likely people who put the weight on will not have much of a chance to lose it by eating lightly for the next month or two. And given the increase likelihood of heart attacks during the Holiday Season, adding this weight at this time may have increased significance as a risk factor.
So, overall, thanksgiving is an amazingly healthy opportunity: giving thanks, getting hugs, letting our digestive system do its duty, and eating good food all have wonderful benefits... just go easy, and maybe get a little extra exercise to kick up metabolism to make sure those calories don't hang around.
Peter Bongiorno ND, LAc and Pina LoGiudice ND, LAc practices in New York. Dr. Peter authored Healing Depression: Integrated Naturopathic and Conventional Therapies He can be reached by visiting InnerSourceHealth.com.
1.Wood G. et al. Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review 30 (2010) 890-905 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20451313)
2. Sigman, A. Decline In Face-to-Face Contact Linked to Biological Changes in Humans As Social Networking Increases Biologist. Feb 2009 accessed at: http://www.aricsigman.com/IMAGES/PR.Well.Connected.pdf on 11-24-2011
3. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in 2006
4. Hull et al. The effect of the Thanksgiving Holiday on weight gain. Nutr J. 2006; 5: 29. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1660573/?tool=pubmed)
5. Baker RC, Kirschenbaum DS. Weight control during the holidays: highly consistent self-monitoring as a potentially useful coping mechanism. Health Psychol. 1998 Jul;17(4):367-70. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9697946)