Tis’ the season for autoimmune flare-ups! But not for you.
In this post, we are going to dive deep and get to the root cause behind why so many of us experience a worsening or intensification of symptoms (also known as a flare) during the holiday season. And, of course, we’ll talk about how to prevent autoimmune flare-ups from happening in the first place.
Instead of giving you some long introduction, I’m just going to jump right in… just last week, a family member expressed how much he is dreading the Christmas season, and there is something not right about that.
If you feel the same way too, then I’m going to let you in on a little secret… I really think the secret to a flare-free holiday season is to actually ENJOY it. If you don’t enjoy it, if you literally dread the holidays, then you are turning on your stress.
And stress causes inflammation. Inflammation leads to autoimmune flares. Flares can last for days, weeks, and even months.
But how, you say? How do I enjoy the holidays when I can’t eat my favorite, traditional foods? And how do I stay on track when my family isn’t very supportive?
Good questions. Let’s talk about them.
How to Prevent Autoimmune Flare-Ups during the Holiday Season
1. Maintain your focus.
Ask yourself: what are the holidays really about? What do they mean to you?
Personally, we are Catholic and focus on the spiritual aspect of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
We see food and presents as tools to bring people together, but if for some reason, we woke up and didn’t have food or presents to give – would that stop us from spending time with the people we love?
Would that stop us from worshiping God and giving thanks for the birth of Jesus?
Think about it this way – once you remove the fluff (the presents, food, football games, and even the decorations) and focus only on what’s really important to YOU, it makes all that fluff seem so… insignificant.
The sooner you realize that these things are just a part of the fun and festivities, but not the actual meaning of the season, you can give yourself the grace to let go. Then you will gain the benefit of making real memories with your loved ones, having great conversations, and being joyful… instead of being stressed out about the Black Friday deal you missed and the turkey that MUST be perfect.
That’s the real key to true joy during the holiday season, and one step further from dread!
2. Plan and Prepare
But… assuming you do plan on eating food, giving presents, and possibly even hosting a gathering, the best thing you can do to lessen the stress is… plan! Plan and prepare for it all. Here are some things to think about:
It’s no secret anymore that food plays a major role in managing and reversing autoimmune disease. Many of us eventually try some type of healing/elimination diet (like the Autoimmune Protocol). Which usually means that you can’t eat much at a traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.
And since the holidays are NOT a valid excuse to divulge in foods that you know could send you into an autoimmune flare, your best bet is to plan around all your gatherings, and figure out creative ways to stay nourished and full, while also, treating yourself.
You can do this in multiple ways:
- Bring your own food: Frank and I did this for a few years where we roasted a small turkey and made one or two simple sides. We assembled our plates and brought them along with us to our family’s Thanksgiving dinner. No one even noticed and we had a great time planning and making our meal together. Plus, the leftovers were all for us. 😉
- If there are some options you can eat, bring a side and/or dessert that will compliment it: Now my mom prepares and roasts the turkey every year using ingredients that are compliant with our diet. So, we offer to bring side dishes to share with the rest of the family. That way, we know we have something to pair with the turkey to make a full meal.
- Eat beforehand: If you aren’t thrilled about packing up your own meal and bringing it along, then stuff your face eat before your gathering, and spend the rest of the day mingling and socializing. (Pro-tip: if you have a drink (even if it’s just water) in your hand, people tend to ask less questions about why you aren’t partaking in food festivities.)
- Work with the host: I have to admit, this is my least favorite option. I don’t trust the majority of people preparing my food, especially if they are not familiar with cross-contamination. There are a few people though who will go to great lengths to make sure you have a meal you can eat, so if they are offering and you feel comfortable – review ingredients and prep methods with the host beforehand. To be extra safe, take digestive enzymes and check out our Emergency Guide to Accidental Glutening in our toolkit.
- Pick the restaurant: If your holiday festivities are at a restaurant, offer to pick the restaurant so that you know it’s safe. If that’s not an option, call the restaurant beforehand and work with them to make a meal that suits your needs. Here is a very detailed article on how to eat out on a restricted diet like the AIP or Paleo diet.
- Offer to host: This is no small feat, but… if you do host, you can decide on the main menu which ensures you have food to eat. Everyone else can bring sides and desserts.
- Treat yourself: I know I mentioned that the holidays are no reason to consume foods that could send you into a flare, but I do think you should allow yourself a little treat that’s compliant with your diet restrictions. I love to make pies during Thanksgiving and Christmas… it’s the only time of year I make them. The Coconut Cream Pie I am making this year is compliant with the Autoimmune Paleo protocol and I am so pumped for a slice. In the past, we’ve also had AIP Pumpkin Pie and these Cherry Turnovers (before I found out that I couldn’t tolerate eggs).
So, bottom line – treat yo’ self.
And… if you are looking for autoimmune-friendly holiday recipes, here are a few posts with A LOT of them! Hooray!
Okay, that covers food… now onto the next thing that requires planning:
There are two types of stress that I don’t fare well with: school stress (the stress of exams is like waking up to 1000 poopy diaper fiascos) and… money stress. Once November/December hits, the monthly budget we follow for the first 10 months of the year quickly falls apart because of all the extra expenses: food, gifts, Christmas trees and decorations, etc.
So if you’re like me and despise the stress of overspending (remember, we are trying to reduce stress to avoid flares), then it’s time to plan and continuously track expenses so you don’t go over budget.
For help with this, read: How to Create a Christmas Budget, which also includes a free printable budget planner.
And then the last thing to plan for… yes, it might be weird, but you need to plan for:
Yes… the strangely timed, awkward silences. Tense moments after a wildly heated SURPRISE! debate. They are all so emotionally draining, and you’re bound to stumble onto them. Especially if your family/loved ones are not super supportive of the way you are choosing to manage your autoimmune disease.
So, think about how you’re going to navigate these conversations. Our best tip is to simply own it. Be confident about the way you live and let all those comments roll of your shoulders. I think you’ll find that confidence is the best repellent for negative comments. It doesn’t allow anyone to get under your skin.
The best part is that you know WHY you do what you do. Other people don’t. Give an explanation a try. Maybe you will win over some votes, and even if you don’t, you still have your “why” and your resolve.
Now, on to the rest of our flare-free holiday tips.
There are now an overwhelming number of holiday traditions: Christmas decorating, pictures with Santa, office parties, family parties, various city events, cookie making and decorating, pie making, school parties, secret Santa for anyone and everyone, charitable events, religious events, Elf on the Shelf. Must. I. Go. On…
Are they all necessary? No! Does everyone need material gifts? I think you know the answer.
Take the pressure off yourself and simplify your schedule/gift-giving down to something that you can handle and actually enjoy – not a checklist that you dread completing. I think one of the biggest adjustments to living life with an autoimmune disease is accepting that we can’t do all the things. (No one can.)
Which leads me to our next tip…
4. Create new traditions that support your lifestyle and diet.
Over the years, I’ve said goodbye to some of my favorite traditions because of their detriment to my health.
This wasn’t easy.
One of my favorites was going out for ice cream with my dad during the summer (we went every day…). But you know what? I realized that traditions are about the people and community, not the food, stuff, or events.
Since then, I’ve created new traditions with my dad that work with my diet. I still treasure those fond memories of past traditions that we had to let go of, but now I get the added benefit of new ones.
Similarly, I know the holidays are full of family and food traditions, and there is always pressure to take part. Especially when it’s something you enjoy… but simply adapt these traditions (like making AIP Christmas Cookies instead of regular cookies for a cookie exchange), or have a talk with your loved ones about starting new ones that are healthier for you AND the people you are celebrating with.
Imagine all the different recipes. You might even suggest an allergy-friendly cookie cook-off! In the spirit and shapes of Christmas events!
5. Use all of your healing weapons for maximum flare-fighting.
Sleep. Healing foods. Supplements. Water. Prayer. Meditation. Gratitude. These are all tools that support your body in a holistic way. So, fill your tank up to combat the busy-ness and stress of the season.
I know how easy it is, for example, to forget to take my supplements on the days we are traveling from house to house. But, the busy days are the days my body needs my supplements the most because I am out of my usual routine.
It can also be particularly easy to eat leftover pie for breakfast… but if I had a slice yesterday, then I should probably take a day to refuel with nourishing food so that I can give my body a break from the sugar.
Think of it as filling up your reserves because the holiday season tends to empty them quickly. Plus, using all of these tools will help you fight off cold and flu viruses before they take hold.
6. Just say: “No.”
“No.” Or better yet “No, thank you.” Or… “No, thanks for asking…” (if you want to be polite). These words are your holiday best friend. At first, they can be intimidating to use, and sometimes part of those awkward moments we talked about earlier. But, they work like a charm.
Say “No” to events that will only cause you stress, food that will do you harm, peer pressure, and whatever else that will result in your stress and general unhealthiness.
The answer is “No”, unless it will help you fight flares and stay healthy.
7. Check-in frequently with your emotional and mental health.
For some, this isn’t an easy time of year. And for more reasons than just stress.
Heartache can make its way into the mix if you are missing loved ones who passed away. Some of us may have to face toxic or broken relationships with family members we only see once a year. All of these emotions are temptation for stress-eating (or drinking).
I think we need to remind ourselves that it’s okay to feel these feelings. We must accept them, and then make a conscious effort to work through them in a healthy manner, while simultaneously supporting our bodies the best way we know how. If that means removing yourself from a family party to take a breather by yourself, then do it. Give yourself the opportunity to take a break and rejuvenate.
8. No guilt.
No guilt for saying “No.”
No guilt for speaking up about your dietary restrictions, or eating different foods.
No guilt for simplifying, or giving less gifts.
And especially no guilt if you accidentally slip up. You can plan and prepare, but sometimes unpredictable events happen. If you fall off the wagon, just get right back on. Give yourself the gift of grace this holiday season. You deserve to feel well, and you are working hard!
So, now I leave you with my parting words of encouragement…
Go out there and turn this season into another tool for healing! I think we all know that happiness is one of the best medicines.
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Hi! I’m Anna, co-founder of Healthy Habits Reset. After managing my own autoimmune diseases using lifestyle, habit, and mindset changes, I now work to teach others how to navigate the treacherous and confusing journey of chronic illness living. I firmly believe YOU hold the power to question, think critically, and become your own rock-solid advocate in a world full of unhealthy habits. Consider me, and my husband, Frank, your autoimmune disease health coaches. Are you ready?!