01:21 - Source: CNN
Food myths at Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving Eve is one of the biggest social nights of the year

There are health benefits to staying socially connected

(CNN) —  

For many people, the holiday season – Festivus! – begins on Thanksgiving Eve.

New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day immediately come to mind as bar nights. But the night before Turkey Day, informally known as “Friendsgiving” and “Drinksgiving,” may, anecdotally speaking, see more pub patrons.

With nearly everyone taking off the next day, Thanksgiving Eve is basically Friday night times three. Friends arriving from distant places will converge on the local watering hole, while local singles throng the same bar in the hopes of meeting someone before the holidays officially lift off. Hello, stranger!

Your unofficial high school reunion or pre-turkey rager isn’t necessarily something to be embarrassed about.

Nothing in print (or on screen) is likely to stop you from texting friends to arrange a pre-Turkey hang session, so take pleasure in the fact that your natural social instinct is a healthy one.

Be grateful for friendships

Recent research has repeatedly shown that strong friendships and social ties extend our lives, generally keep us healthier and keep our brains active and synapses firing.

“People who are more socially connected live longer than people who are less socially connected,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. Whether your social network is measured in terms of the size or the extent to which you feel supported by it, people who have a wealth of friends live longer than those more socially impoverished, she adds.

This is more or less the consensus within the social sciences.

“Social relationships can vastly promote health – and the lack thereof would be vastly detrimental to health,” said Yang Claire Yang, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It’s tremendous.”

Yang adds that the positive impact of social relationships can be assessed by “objectively measured” physiological markers across our cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems. In fact, the amount our social relationships influence our mortality and health are comparable to – if not exceeding, Yang says – well-known factors such as physical activity and smoking.

The ways social connectedness influences health are practical and even logical, Holt-Lunstad explains.

“It’s not just this weird correlation,” she said. “Just the extent you have others around and can provide assistance and resources and a sense of companionship. … Even basic things like if you were to fall or have a medical emergency can make a huge difference in your outcome.”

Another example: If all your friends are vegetarians who do yoga, this “social norm” will probably influence you to exercise and eat right, says Holt-Lunstad. Relationships also help you manage stress. Friends help buffer us from the world and help us “talk out” our problems. In other cases, our social links to, say, a religious group can provide much-needed aid or financial assistance in times of need.

That said, Holt-Lunstad notes there’s also a dark side. “Humans are complex, social relations are complex, and it’s just not simple,” she said.

Some relationships can be a source of stress, while others may be a combination of both positive and negative. The people we have mixed feelings about, even if we love them, can be associated with detrimental physiological effects, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure or increased anxiety, says Holt-Lunstad.

But what about an annual gathering with friends home for the holidays: Is this just social junk food or a nutritious social meal?

“Seeing someone we don’t get to see often might strengthen our bonds and feelings of connectedness,” Holt-Lunstad said.

Yang agrees, so long as the people we socialize with “actually promote or provide the kind of support and connection that you need.”

“Having any is better than having none,” Yang said. “And having more is always better.”

Of course, more social connection is one thing; more time spent in the bar is another.

Beware ‘Blackout Wednesday’

Bartenders have their own name for Thanksgiving Eve: “Blackout Wednesday.” The annual gathering is a time when some people throw caution to the wind.

Thanksgiving dinner may be the ultimate hangover cure, but too much booze is never a good thing. In particular, binge drinking is terrible for your health. Defined as five or more drinks (within two hours) for a man and four or more drinks for a woman, binge drinking can lead to accidents, cardiovascular disease and liver disease.

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There’s another danger, too: Late nights and early mornings between Thanksgiving Eve through New Year’s include some of the most dangerous on the nation’s highways and byways. Overall, in 2014, just shy of 10,000 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These fatalities accounted for nearly one-third of all traffic-related deaths in the United States that year. Meanwhile, drugs other than alcohol were involved in about 16% of the total car crashes.

Thanksgiving weekend contributed more car crash deaths than the holiday periods surrounding New Year’s, Christmas, Fourth of July and Memorial Day, according to the safety administration. Only Labor Day weekend topped Thanksgiving in car crash deaths last year.

Although Friendsgiving can be a healthy way to start the holiday season, it’s also an important time to know your limits – even if that means staying home.