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Dr Catherine Conlon Tips on ways to stay healthy this Christmas

The public health doctor has some tips for keeping yourself and loved ones safe this season.

FOR MANY, CHRISTMAS with all its twinkly lights, family gatherings, soft lighting, old movies, presents and (lots and lots of) socialising is the best time of the year.

For others, not so much. Many find the season challenging and the pace exhausting. From financial pressures and dealing with bereavement following the loss of a loved one to spending time in intense family situations, there are lots of reasons why Christmas can be challenging and impact health and wellbeing.

Here are a few tips on how to get through the season intact.

Friendship and loneliness

Our friends and relationships literally keep us alive. Albert Einstein knew this when he said, ‘However rare true love may be, it is less so than true friendship.’

Rose Anne Kenny writes in Age Proof (2022) that she was staggered by the evidence of how powerful the physical effects of friendship are and how much difference good friendships make – not only to pleasure and quality of life but to hard outcomes like heart disease and even determining when we die.

‘Good friendships add years to our lives.’ Prof Kenny explains that the strength of social contacts has an impact on stress and stress-related hormones, heart disease and inflammation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also confirmed that social isolation and loneliness are increasingly being recognised as a priority public health problem and policy issue across all age groups and a root cause of many of the modern epidemics of alcoholism, drug addiction, obesity, violence, depression and anxiety.

‘We have evolved to participate in community, to forge lasting bonds with others, to help one and to share life experiences. We are better together.’

The festive season can add to that loneliness. Showing compassion and demonstrating kindness to more vulnerable members of the community, such as friends and neighbours who live alone, can have huge health and well-being benefits for everyone.


We are wired to be happy and share happy experiences through laughter. As well as making us feel better, laughter contributes to better health through exercising muscles, improving breathing, digestion and blood circulation.

Children can laugh up to 400 times a day, adults tend to laugh much less – about 15 times a day. But laughter is contagious and we are more likely to ‘catch’ it from someone we know well.

At a chemical level, laughter lowers stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and increases endorphins – the feel-good chemicals. Because it alters dopamine and serotonin, laughter therapy works for patients with depression. Endorphins also play a role in the immune response and in ‘killer’ T cells that help to fight infections.

So, as well as ensuring you and your family are up to date with vaccines against flu and Covid-19 this winter – having regular doses of laughter medicine is a real health booster.


On average, we spend over a quarter of a century (26 and a half years) asleep, or at least in bed. Research from the University of Berkeley has shown that while a good night’s sleep stabilises emotions, a sleepless night triggers anxiety to rise by almost a third (30%).

Sleep is also critical to the replenishment of collagen – that scaffolding for skin, bones, tendons and cartilage.

That is why we look so ghastly with black circles around the eyes after a poor night’s sleep. Looking ‘as fresh as a daisy’ depends on that essential collagen replenishment through the night as we slumber.


What we eat is key to getting a good sleep. The evidence confirms what we already know. Foods like aged cheese, cured meats including sausage, pastrami and ham contain lots of tyramine, an amino acid that triggers brain alertness. Some Italian wines and beers also have a high load of tyramine that make us more alert. Chocolate and caffeine are also stimulants.

High carbohydrate foods and acidic or spicy foods can all disturb sleep and Christmas is the time of year when all these foods are eaten in abundance.

Night caps can also disturb sleep – it may send us to sleep more quickly, but the length of the normal sleep cycles can be disrupted and as the alcohol is metabolised it can make us more wakeful.

Safefood has a host of resources to guide you through eating and feasting at Christmas – including how to thoroughly cook the turkey, storing, reheating or freezing leftovers, vegetarian cooking and inspirational Christmas recipes.

Less is more

As climate scientists and environmentalists warn of the burgeoning threat of climate breakdown and ecological collapse — finally, there is evidence of a social shift away from endless consumerism, particularly when it comes to fashion.

With the looming threat of climate disaster aligned with a cost of living crisis, many people are rethinking their habits, pledging to consume less and reuse more as well as ditching the habit of throwaway clothes.

In 2022, the Irish Charity Retail Report outlined that 7.3 million garments were sold across charity shops, bringing in €43 million in revenue and preventing the incineration of 17,300 items. Despite this, a tenth of global carbon emissions continue to be produced by the fashion industry and a staggering three out of every five garments produced will end up in landfill. This is why it is one of the most polluting industries in the world along with agriculture, transport and energy.

A huge part of fashion is the power of online influencers. A recent report from Behaviour and Attitudes found that almost one in two Gen Z consumers are buying products endorsed by influencers. But influencers can have a massive positive impact as well, as demonstrated by Irish YouTuber Keelin Moncrieff with 82,000 followers who has convinced many of her followers to forsake fast fashion because of its planetary impacts.

Those glittery throwaway dresses that are worn on a Christmas night out and dumped are now gaining a reputation for being ‘cheap and nasty’ and ‘terrible for the environment,’ compared to pre-owned clothes that are both cheaper and more sustainable.

At a time of increasing global instability with climate and nature collapse, homelessness and war, playing the consumerism game at Christmas of more and more spending for that picture-perfect home, laden dinner table and extravagant gifts, is finally showing itself up for what it is – a mirage created by a profit-driven, market-driven world, that insists on insatiable spending at any cost.

Well, guess what, we’re not buying it any more. We no longer need to cover every surface with plastic tat to make it special. Keeping it simple can take the pressure off the Christmas build-up without sacrificing the seasonal cheer. Christmas is about fun, laughter, traditions, good food, sharing time with family and friends and lots of lie-ins. Enjoy every moment. Embrace the break. 

Dr Catherine Conlon is a public health doctor in Cork and former director of human health and nutrition, safefood.

Dr Catherine Conlon
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