Nine years ago, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a chronic, mostly invisible, autoimmune disease. I utilize an insulin pump, a glucose meter and a continuous glucose monitor to help me control my blood sugar and its effects on me.
My blood sugar regulation thrives on predictability and routine, something that is the exact opposite of the holiday season. Though I love Christmas and Thanksgiving as much as many, my disease can make the holidays less enjoyable and more anxiety-ridden. In honor of National Diabetes Month (November), here are five ways in which those of us with a chronic disease might struggle during the holidays:
1: Food: Food is at the heart of nearly all holiday celebrations, and usually steaming mounds of not-so-healthy foods like sugary sweet potatoes. Desserts and sweet drinks are in abundance. For a person with a chronic disease, the variety of foods may be tempting or forbidden, or may just strike terror in our hearts or feelings of being othered. If you're staying in a hotel, you might be relegated to eating the in-house free breakfast that doesn't accommodate your diet.
2: Traveling: Sitting in a car or on a plane for long periods of time can be the breeding ground for physical pain or, at minimum, provide ample time to worry about one's disease. Traveling also means a change of routine and a lot of unpredictability and extra stress. For example, flying means I have to go through security at the airport, go through a pat-down while the rest of my family stands by waiting, and explain to multiple personnel what my disease is, what my devices do, and no, they cannot be removed from my body for inspection. Time zone and altitude changes can also be difficult.
3: Temperature: If it's too hot, my blood sugars tend to plummet, leaving me shaky, disoriented, and light-headed. Other chronic diseases can also be impacted by the temperature, whether it is the temperature in grandma's living room or the temperature of a new geographical location such as going from your home in sunny Florida to spending a weekend in snowy Colorado. If you aren't staying somewhere where you can regulate the temperature of your sleeping quarters, not only will you possibly not feel well, but your sleep will be impacted (see point #4).
4: Sleeping arrangements: A person almost always sleeps better in his or her own bed, so sleeping in a hotel room or on your great-aunt's fold-out sofa can cause you sleeplessness. In turn, you may not wake up well-rested or feeling physically ready to open piles of presents. You might have been disturbed by any roommates, by loud guests at the hotel, or by your grandpa's howling puppy. Any and all of these things can negatively effect how you sleep and feel the next day.
5: Activity: Some holiday celebrations include activities which might be out of your typical routine: skiing, going from house-to-house visiting relatives, power-shopping with your mom on Black Friday. These activities can cause your disease to flare-up in undesirable ways, zapping your energy and bringing down your mood.
Because holidays can be so challenging, advance preparations for those with a chronic disease are a must. Here's what I've learned to "minimize the damage":
1: Take along plenty of extra supplies and snacks.
2: Stay hydrated.
3: Don't be afraid to squeeze in workouts, go to bed early, sleep in a little, or whatever else you need to stay as healthy as possible.
4: Choose a place to sleep that is the most conducive to getting a good night's rest.
5: Allow time for naps or down time so you can reenergize and de-stress.
6: Let professionals know what you need (at the airport, at the lodge, etc.).
7: Wear your medical alert jewelry, and tell those you're with what to do if there's an emergency.
8: Tell your travel companions know what you need (walking break, for example).
9: Contribute healthy dishes that fit your dietary restrictions that everyone can enjoy.
10: Give yourself lots of grace, and make your needs known.