Here’s one way to get to the other end of the holidays without your belly feeling bloated and overwhelmed: Think of your gastrointestinal system as a stocking. Then ask, “Should I fill it with the things it really wants, or with a lot of stuff it wasn’t asking for?”
There’s a reason so many people suffer from stomach issues during the holidays. Our tendency to overindulge on special-occasion treats – many of which are infrequent visitors to our digestive systems – can trigger or exacerbate GI conditions, including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, and constipation.
Ironically, this is the time of year when people with GI issues want symptoms to subside so they can enjoy the festivities, family, and friends. Yet our tables are laden with the culprits behind GI flareups.
If you think of the GI system as a stocking, you could fill it up mostly with the good stuff it wants, and surprise it with a couple of indulgences. That way, you both feel good at the other end.
The GI System Is Like an Elf on an Assembly Line
When the GI system is overloaded, it might not be able to digest its contents as well as it should. It’s not the Grinch; it’s just overwhelmed. Let’s look at some of the key causes of holiday-related GI distress.
Biggy portions. Our plates tend to hold more food around the holidays because there are more sides, more new foods, and more people distracting us from tracking what we eat.
An embarrassment of richness. From the pre-dinner cheese puffs to the yule log cake, holiday dishes tend to be higher in sugars and fats – and fat in particular slows down digestion, which can trigger acid reflux or (GERD). Other holiday staples, including coffee, alcohol, creamy sauces, and roasts (red meat), also can exacerbate acid reflux.
A shortage of roughage. What might get overlooked on a table rich with buttery, creamy, sugary dishes is fiber, like that found in oats, nuts, root vegetables (carrots and beets), and leafy greens. This can be a hazard for people with IBS.
That long, long (and getting longer) to-do list. Festive or not, all of those holiday-related tasks contribute to stress-related upset stomach, IBS-related fecal incontinence, and heartburn. That stress sets a vicious cycle into motion: Many people, when under pressure, tend to cope by eating and drinking more.
Add These 5 Behaviors to Your “Good List”
By recognizing these causes behind GI discomfort, we can make better choices about the stocking “stuffers” that are really worth it. Add these practices to your holiday menu and activities.
Don’t rush it. Like holiday guests, each food item should be appreciated as an individual. Take the time to admire how it looks, ask about the recipe or tradition behind it, and relish the taste. Eating slowly takes just a little discipline, but it makes for much more memorable meals because it gives us a chance to think about the flavors.
Share with care. It’s estimated that 10% to 15 % of the adult population experiences IBS symptoms. If hosting a party, include a dish or two that is easy on the stomach, including sweet potatoes, fruit salad (bonus if it includes figs), and fatty fish such as salmon. If bringing a dish to a party, think of the same kinds of treats that all can enjoy.
Dilute your drinks. One can accept a cocktail without having a full-octane drink. Ask for, or serve, a beverage with just a splash of alcohol, or rotate in flavored soda waters with juice splashes. Enjoy them with a beautiful garnish and voila! They’re dressed for the holidays.
Let your legs kick bad habits. After a meal, don’t just move from the dining table to the couch. Suggest a walk to see the holiday lights, a football toss, or a game of charades – anything to get everyone up and on their feet. Movement encourages healthy digestion.
Sneak in super foods. Stock your kitchen with high-fiber, nutrient-rich foods to eat for breakfast, lunch, and non-holiday meals. This should counter the stress, richness, and slight overindulgences we allow ourselves, and help keep the gut microbiome’s balanced.
You Can Stomach the Holidays Without Deprivation
Getting through the tricky holiday season without stomach issues comes down to a series of small decisions. Pause and approach each of these decisions seriously, and chances are you’ll come to bed each night feeling well.
To put it another way: Walk a mile in your GI system’s stockings, and you will learn what it really wants. Happy holidays! Here’s to seeing you in good health in 2022.