The holiday season is well underway. This is the time of year for celebrating with family and close friends and reflecting on what is truly important to us. It can also be a time of significant stress, inevitable over-eating and deviation from our usual routines. Essentially, the holidays can be hazardous to your health and this is particularly true when it comes to your gastrointestinal (GI) system. So what can you do to prevent your stomach from slowing you down this holiday season?
Here are a few common GI symptoms and tips to help combat them during the holidays:
Gas and bloating
Among the most common complaints in GI doctor’s offices are bloating (a sensation of abdominal distension) and excessive gas (flatulence and/or burping). These symptoms are very likely to be exacerbated during the holidays due to dietary changes. Over the holidays we eat more and more often. Large meals may lead to increased gastric distension resulting in bloating, belching and potentially pain. In addition, many holiday favorites are chock-full of ingredients that can be difficult to digest and lead to excessive intestinal gas production. For example, stuffing commonly has wheat and onions which can be troublesome for many people. Deserts such as pies and cookies often contain sugars that are poorly digested. Finally, delicious cheesy holiday foods may be a problem for those who are lactose intolerant.
So, what can you do to avoid feeling like you’re full of hot air? First, and most importantly, moderation is key. Eating small portions will help you avoid many holiday dietary pitfalls. In addition, if you do happen to have something your GI tract is not happy with, eating less of it will allow you to recover faster. Second, try to stick with foods that you know work for you. Your office holiday party may not be the time to experiment with exotic new dishes and ingredients. Finally, beware of alcohol. In particular, the carbonation in beer will cause bloating and belching.
Millions of people are diagnosed with gastroesophogeal reflux disease, or GERD, every year. Common symptoms of GERD include heartburn, regurgitation and abdominal pain. This condition is usually easily treated with life-style changes and/or medications. Unfortunately, all of that goes out the window for the holidays. We overeat, have meals late at night, drink more coffee and consume more alcohol. All of these things can trigger GERD symptoms. In addition, the stress and hustle of the holidays leads many people to forget the medicines that were keeping their GERD at bay.
The solution is simple (although sometimes easier said than done). Do your best to control portion size, avoid your personal “GERD trigger foods” and don’t abandon the medicines that have been keeping you well throughout the year. If bothersome symptoms develop despite your best efforts consider trying over-the-counter antacids or consulting your doctor.
While this is a topic nobody likes to discuss, it is one that affects all of us from time to time. Constipation may present as infrequent bowel movements, excessive straining to have a bowel movement or a sensation of incomplete evacuation after a bowel movement. Regardless of the particular manifestation, constipation can lead to significant discomfort. Over the holidays, exacerbating factors include dehydration, diet and travel. As we increase our consumption of egg-nog and holiday wine we often forget to drink enough water. With respect to diet, holiday foods tend to be rich in carbohydrates and fats but poor in fiber. It is widely accepted that a diet high in fiber is beneficial for regular bowel movements.
Finally, believe it or not, your colon has a mind of its own and it can be quite sensitive. Changes in your routine, which are inevitable with holiday travel, can throw off your colon’s internal clock. In addition, being away from a familiar environment can make some people uncomfortable with using the bathroom. The result is the phenomenon of “traveler’s constipation.”
The good news is that most of the common constipation culprits can be avoided and managed. Do your best to stay hydrated by supplementing your daily water intake. Skipping the juice or soda at lunch and having a bottle of water instead can do wonders. Do not pass on the salad to save room for more dessert. Certain vegetable, fruits and cereals are full of fiber that your body needs to maintain normal bowel motility. If you are unable to take in enough fiber in your diet, consider trying an over-the-counter fiber supplement. Finally, try to maintain as much normalcy as you can during the holidays in an effort to avoid stressing out your GI tract. If these life-style changes fail to provide relief consider consulting your doctor.
So, as you spend time with your loved ones during this holiday season don’t forget to show some love for your GI tract. Because if you do, it will reciprocate in kind.
Steven Naymagon is a gastroenterologist.