The holidays are fun, stressful, and exciting. It’s traditionally a great time to get together with friends and family and share a meal. Or several meals. Unfortunately, studies tell us that most Americans gain about six pounds on average during the holiday season. 

All this food consumption makes for a lot of upset tummies during the holiday season; and some people even irritate their stomach into a holiday ulcer with all the rich food they consume.

How Can the Holidays Make Me Sick?

The holidays aren’t typically kind to our waistlines. Your stomach and gastrointestinal tract will likely be put to the test this year with a lot of sweets, rich gravies, fried food, and alcohol. When you add holiday stress into the mix there’s a lot of interesting stuff sloshing around in your stomach.  

Jane Milligan, Advanced Practice Registered Nurse at Gastroenterology Associates of Southwest Florida, P.A., says, “We’ve found that during the holiday period that people often eat a little bit less healthily, especially over Thanksgiving and Christmas.” All this overindulging, while fun at the time, can potentially make our gastrointestinal system not function properly and even lead to illness. For example:

  • Fiber deficits are caused when too much fatty food with too little fiber roils through your intestines. Low-fiber foods during the holidays can lead to constipation and a lot of discomfort. It’s a good idea to at least up your fiber intake at breakfast with some nice bran flakes or oatmeal.
  • Overeating with large portion sizes will stuff your stomach to the max. This puts pressure on your esophageal sphincter, which is the muscle between your stomach and the esophagus. When that pressure is too high the muscle will allow food back into the esophagus, which causes heartburn. Eating too much can also slow down your digestive process, cause constipation, and make you feel logy, irritable, and painful. 
  • Rich but oh-so-delicious foods are an overindulgence that some of us can’t get enough of during the holiday season. Sugar and fat can cause an upset stomach and weight gain. Fats and spices can trigger acid reflux. Jane Milligan reports that her patients are “Eating more fried food, eating rich food, creamy sauces, a lot of maybe alcohol, things that can irritate the stomach over time.”
  • Stress is no joke during the holiday season. There’s a lot of extra work involved if you’re hosting relatives, including making all of the richest and most delicious foods you can come up with. This can cause heartburn and indigestion even before you start eating.

Milligan states all of these factors can eventually lead to a holiday season doctor visit. “We see an increase in patients coming in with symptoms that might lead us to believe they have gastritis or an ulcer developing. They’re eating things they don’t normally eat. People do try, especially those with GERD, do try to follow an anti-reflux diet and that kind of goes out the window during the holiday period.”

Can I Get an Ulcer from the Food I Eat During the Holidays?

Holiday UlcersDuring the holidays, heartburn, acid reflux, inflammation in the stomach, and potentially ulcers can result. 

Milligan says, “Often when people have symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux, they just reach for the Tums or they take some over-the-counter Pepcid or some Maalox and that will work for a short period of time if it’s a short-term problem.”

However, 4 million people in the United States are afflicted by a more serious long-term condition called an ulcer.  

Contrary to popular belief, the latest research shows that “Food choices don’t cause ulcers or make them worse.” However, the acids from the foods we eat can make the discomfort and pain of an ulcer much more problematic. Spicy or rich foods and stress can make your ulcer worse during the holiday season or at any time of the year.

What is an Ulcer and How is it Treated?

An ulcer is a sore lining the small intestine or stomach. These conditions are caused by a bacterial infection from the helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) as well as the overuse of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen and aspirin. Some common causes of the condition include:

  • Alcohol
  • Aspirin or ibuprofen
  • Coffee (with or without caffeine)
  • Smoking

Some of the signs that you may have an ulcer include:

  • Bloating, burning, or stomach pain
  • Black, tarry stools that may indicate bleeding
  • Discomfort when you eat
  • Discomfort between meals
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain that wakes you at night
  • Weight loss

While food doesn’t cause the ulcer, it does have an impact. Your holiday food habits can make an ulcer become more noticeable. Food can also have a positive on an ulcer by helping the body naturally fight against the H.pylori virus. If you end up taking acid-blocking medications or antibiotics to treat an ulcer, your doctor may also recommend eating some of these types of foods:

  • Apples
  • Blackberries
  • Blueberries
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Cherries
  • Garlic
  • Green tea
  • Leafy greens
  • Licorice 
  • Probiotics like yogurt or kombucha

Ulcers

Healthy foods stimulate your immune system to help you heal, but these conditions typically require a visit to your doctor, particularly if the ulcer is actively bleeding, to diagnose and receive treatment to bring the condition under control.

If you’re taking Pepcid twice a week or more on a fairly regular basis or experiencing pain or discomfort frequently, it’s time to come in and see your doctor to be sure you don’t have an ulcer. 

Some of the treatment options to alleviate your discomfort include:

  • Antacids
  • Antibiotics
  • Dietary adjustments
  • Stronger medications
  • Surgery

Your doctor may want to conduct an upper endoscopy to evaluate your symptoms. This procedure inserts a thin, flexible tube with a camera into the stomach while the patient is anesthetized. This helps the doctor diagnose the type of ulcer you have and recommend treatment.

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