For many individuals with digestive diseases and disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), ulcers, and other gastrointestinal problems, stress, and changes to routine often experienced during the holidays can exacerbate their symptoms.
The holiday season may be the most wonderful time of the year for many. Still, for those with digestive conditions, it can be the most challenging season of all. The holidays are generally a time to rest, have fun, and enjoy spending time with friends and family. However, people also experience higher levels of stress, as well as changes to their diet that can put a lot of pressure on the digestive system.
Below, we’ll break down how overindulging in not-so-healthy holiday foods, traveling on overcrowded airplanes and roadways, and dealing with holiday stress can throw your digestive issues out of whack. We’ll also share 5 practical ways to put comfort and joy back into your celebrations.
Why Do People Experience More Trouble with Digestive Issues During the Holidays?
Common sense says that binge-eating during the holidays will likely lead to gastrointestinal flare-ups and discomfort. However, there are other causes for stomach and digestive problems that are about more than mere overeating.
Digestive issues during the holidays are caused by a range of factors, including:
- Trying new foods or eating meals at different times than your regular routine
- Eating foods you are sensitive to or find hard to process
- Emotional distress over holiday travel plans and the actual stress while traveling
- Eating richer food that is higher in carbohydrates, fat, and sugar, making it harder to digest or leading to weight gain
- Having large portions, which can lead to bloating and constipation or other issues such as diarrhea
- Heightened emotions over the holidays can lead to stress and anxiety, causing you to increase your food intake or alter your regular eating patterns.
- Conditions like IBS and IBD can flare up if you eat foods to which these conditions are sensitive—especially when eating away from home or breaking your diet due to the holiday season
- Alcohol and fizzy drinks can cause digestive flare-ups and discomfort, and people tend to drink more of these types of drinks during the holidays
5 Ways to Avoid Holiday GI Flare-Ups
Every individual has different triggers for their IBS, IBD, ulcer, or GI symptoms, including:
- Specific foods
- Lifestyle choices
- Emotional stress
If you haven’t done so already, talk to your physician to identify your personal triggers and devise a plan to avoid them throughout the holidays.
1. Foods to Avoid
Where food is concerned, it can be easy to give in to temptation during a festive holiday meal. But by staying disciplined, you’ll be more likely to keep your GI issues at bay and truly enjoy your time with friends and loved ones.
Meals that are high in fat, greasy, or include fried foods may provoke symptoms of abdominal cramps and diarrhea that can aggravate IBS and IBD symptoms. Foods and beverages containing caffeine, spicy ingredients, and certain sugars that are not absorbed by the bowel may result in cramping or diarrhea. These sugars include :
- Sorbitol, commonly used as a sweetener in many dietetic foods, candies, and gums
- Fructose, also used as a sweetener and found naturally in honey as well as some fruits
Overeating gas-producing food may cause increased gaseousness. This is particularly true with IBS since it can be associated with bloating and retention of gas. Gas producing foods include:
- Cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli
- Legumes (like peas, peanuts, soybeans)
Moreover, milk and dairy-based foods like ice cream can also cause problems, as some people are unable to digest significant amounts of milk or milk products (lactose intolerance). They may experience symptoms similar to IBS when they eat or drink milk products. Lactase pills may offer relief in some cases.
2. Lifestyle Changes
The following lifestyle changes have been shown to reduce the symptoms of IBS, IBD, and other GI issues over time:
- Cutting out caffeine
- Adding fiber to your diet with fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Drinking about one liter of water each day
- Quitting smoking
- Making time for fun and relaxation
- Getting enough sleep
Getting enough rest will significantly reduce holiday stress and help keep your digestive system functioning properly. Don’t sacrifice shut-eye, no matter how tempted you are to check off every item on your to-do list — from wrapping to baking to decorating.
3. Reduce Stress
Many people with IBD and IBS report that stress makes their symptoms worse. Relaxation techniques and mind/body exercises, such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation may help, particularly when combined with other forms of treatment.
Where the holidays are concerned, if shopping at the mall drives you crazy, avoid weekends, or shop online. If the stress of travel sometimes overwhelms you, plan out your holiday and pack well for peace of mind. Consider where you are going and what you need to remain comfortable. Do you need to plan out bathroom locations in advance? Will you be on a long plane ride and need to bring gut-friendly snacks?
If you are staying at a hotel or with family, make sure you have everything you need ahead of time, including healthy snack foods and beverages to alleviate stress and minimize digestive symptoms.
4. Go for a Walk
Physical activity plays a critical role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress. After a big holiday meal, it is tempting to sink into an armchair to watch a big game or take a nap. However, that can lead to digestive distress. Lying down or slouching in a chair can increase your odds of heartburn, acid reflux, and gastrointestinal issues.
To avoid stomach problems after eating, stand up and walk around. Physical activity is shown to improve GI symptoms in people with IBS. A brisk walk around the block may be just what the doctor ordered — and the exercise may help ease any holiday stress that could be brewing.
5. Take Your Medicine
Holiday frenzy can make it challenging to remember to take your medications. However, it’s essential to maintain treatments that keep your symptoms under control in day-to-day life when you are in stressful conditions. Set up reminders on your smartphone or in a journal so that you don’t forget to take them during the excitement of the holidays.
If you would like to learn more about how to reduce or prevent common symptoms of IBS, IBD, or other GI disorders, please feel free to contact us.