This post would have been timely during the holidays, but then again holiday syndrome isn’t limited to any one time of year. By “holiday syndrome” I’m referring to that feeling of being bloated, sluggish, backed up, listless, and fatigued that besets everyone occasionally, and some folks on a regular basis. Today I aim to shed some light on the dynamics of these holiday blues and how to bounce back to vibrant health with a minimum of fuss.
At the root of the problem is overeating, especially of processed or refined foods (though it’s possible to get sick even from eating too much kale salad). Whatever it is that we overeat, our systems have to deal with digesting the excess. Rather than firing our metabolism with combustible fuel, we’re overloading the engine. The digestive fire (Spleen yang) can’t process its way through all the extra ‘wood’ we’ve thrown onto the blaze, which starts to smolder and smoke instead of burning nice and clean. We end up with all kinds of metabolic waste products, the equivalent of creosote and soot, that slowly clog up our channels—on both physical and subtle levels. Mental clarity takes a dive along with energy level. As we cool down we become lethargic generally blah and incapable of having—or being—much fun.
There’s another, hidden consequence here, and it has to do with water. Consider that water is something that needs to be absorbed and processed by the body, and that this does not occur as automatically as we tend to think. It takes energy to bring the cold water most of us drink up to body temperature, and it takes electrolytes to turn water into body fluids. The upshot is that when we burden our digestion through overeating we impair our ability to absorb water efficiently. If we go ahead and drink lots of water anyway, we aren’t doing our digestion any favors, since there’s already not enough fire to go around.
Overeating and dehydration, then, make up a vicious cycle. Asking too much of our digestive fire means compromised water metabolism. Without the ability to process water efficiently, it’s possible for our tissues to be dry even as our guts are full of sludge. At this point it often takes actually getting sick with a cold, flu or stomach bug to instigate the shifts that will get us back on track. Illness is often the necessary catalyst for greater health, and if we don’t suppress the body’s natural healing process, we can emerge stronger and clearer from our forays into the land of kleenex.
If you’re still stuck on the holiday blues train here in mid January, take heart, as it’sentirely possible to reverse this kind of low-energy, gummed-up, and most likely constipated state. In broad strokes, the plan is to stoke the fire, flush the system with water, and give your hard-working guts a break from food for a little while. “A little while” can mean anything from skipping a meal to fasting for a day (or even more, in severe cases, but that’s best attempted under qualified supervision). During a short fast, the body can put its fire towards burning up what’s already in the pot-belly stove.
Drinking plenty of water helps move things along while rehydrating a system that’s most likely dry. In particular, drinking hot water (“nothing tea”) aids digestion without placing an additional burden on limited yang qi (vital warmth). Hot water is key to this process, and a much overlooked solution for staying hydrated while supporting digestion and vitality at any time of year. I recommend consuming about 1/2 gallon of hot water (not all at once!) for each meal you skip. As for breaking the fast, wait for the appetite to return; depending on the situation, of course, I find skipping two meals and then starting to reintroduce fruit and/or soups at the next meal is often about right. Meanwhile, rest or exercise as you feel the need to. Trust that your body knows how to cleanse and heal itself, and that your job is simply to provide the basic materials of time, space, water, and warmth.
Herbs can be wonderful adjuncts to this process: small doses (1-3 drops) of goldenseal, or a good digestive bitters formula, stimulate gastric secretions and keep things moving along as the body’s internal combustion engine gets back into gear. Just don’t expect herbs to do the job for you: they can help, but the holiday blues have to be worked through the old-fashioned way.