The holidays are here … and you know what that means: parties galore complete with irresistible appetizers and too many desserts, heavy holiday meals, Christmas cookies, eggnog, fruitcake, candy canes and … libations.
It’s no wonder the average American gains about one pound during the holidays (and the average overweight American gains five)1. And we tend to keep that pound, not lose it, which means you’re probably starting off this year’s festivities with a little friendly gift: that pound of fat (or five) from last year.
Just thinking about it is enough to cause heartburn – the other holiday ‘gift’ that keeps on giving. An upset digestive system – from gas, bloating and heartburn – is as common during the holidays as turkey and stuffing, which is why taking action now can help you avoid some pretty uncomfortable moments.
1. Think Green
Not greenery like your garland … green like veggies. Eating five or more servings of vegetables (and fruits) each day is one of the essentials for a healthy colon. At holiday gatherings, try to fill your plate up with mostly vegetables and hang out near the crudités. Another simple trick to sneak in more veggies is to start your day with a green drink. Try simple combinations like spinach, carrot, cucumber, celery and parsley to start your day off right (and you’ll likely feel more energized after a green drink than after a cup of coffee!).
2. Fermented Foods to the Rescue
Probiotics (beneficial bacteria) are superstars for digestion, and fermented foods are loaded with them. Traditionally fermented foods include kefir, yogurt, kimchi, miso and sauerkraut, among others. Eating more fermented foods may help your body digest your food, absorb nutrients and also support immune function. According to the American Gastroenterological Association2:
“ … probiotics have been shown to help regulate the movement of food through the intestine.”
A probiotics supplement may also help support healthy digestion and nutrient assimilation, along with promoting healthy intestinal flora and digestive comfort.
3. Chew Your Food Well and Eat Slowly
Did you know you can reduce bloating simply by chewing your food well and eating slowly? Overloading your stomach, on the other hand, can lead to gas. Simply slowing down your meal may also help you to savor your food – an indulgence so many of us miss these days – and will help you avoid indigestion or gas caused by eating too quickly (or gulping down large pieces of food without thoroughly chewing them).
4. Bake Smarter
Are you in charge of baking this year? Cut the sugar in your recipes by one-third to one-half; you can add in extra spices such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice or nutmeg, or increase the amount of vanilla extract or almond flavoring, instead.
Why is this important? Because a diet high in sugar may increase acidity in your digestive tract, leading to heartburn and acid reflux. Too much sugar can also throw off the balance of bacteria in your gut, leading to bloating, gas and even infectious disease.
5. Keep Exercising
Regular exercise is beneficial for your digestion. For starters, it can help you maintain a healthy weight, and heartburn, bloating and constipation are more common in those who are overweight. Beyond this, exercise can actually enhance your digestive health. As explained by Harvard Health Publications:3
“Exercise is a great tonic for the mind, body and stomach. Exercise helps to control weight and prevent constipation. Aerobic exercise (exercise that increases your breathing and heart rate) and deep breathing exercises are very beneficial for healthy digestion, because they stimulate the natural contraction of intestinal muscles, helping to move food through your intestines more rhythmically.”
Even a short walk after a meal can help stimulate digestion and relieve bloating! Exercise is also a great stress-buster (see below … ).
6. Nip Stress in the Bud
When you’re stressed, your heart rate increases and your muscles become tense, which means blood flow gets shuttled away from your gut.
“With the reduction in blood supply to the gut, the gut muscles contract less vigorously, digestive enzymes are secreted in smaller amounts, and the transit of food waste shifts into slow motion. This can lead to heartburn, bloating and constipation,” Harvard reported.3
In addition, feelings of stress and anxiety can make indigestion worse, while emotional triggers can easily sabotage your healthy eating intentions. Address your stress directly using exercise, meditation, counseling or whatever methods work best for you to avoid turning to unhealthy food for comfort.
7. Sip Peppermint Tea for Indigestion, Gas and Bloating
Peppermint tea is excellent to keep on hand for indigestion, and makes a wise choice to sip on after a heavy meal. Peppermint is calming to your stomach muscles and improves the flow of bile for easier fat digestion. It helps food pass through your stomach more quickly and also helps gas to pass – and it fits right in with the tastes of the season!
One caveat: avoid peppermint if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), as it may make your symptoms worse.5 Not a fan of peppermint? Ginger tea, chamomile tea, and fennel tea are also known for supporting healthy digestion.
8. Finish Your Feasting Early
Make a point to stop eating early in the evening, even if your holiday festivities continue until the wee hours of the morning. According to New York physician Jamie Koufman, late-night eating is a primary cause of acid reflux, which often causes symptoms of indigestion and heartburn. It’s an issue of gravity. As Dr. Koufman wrote in the New York Times6:
“In my experience, the single most important intervention [to relieve acid reflux] is to eliminate late eating, which in the United States is often combined with portions of large, over-processed, fatty food … For my patients, eating late is often accompanied by overeating, because many skip breakfast and eat only a sandwich at lunch. Thus the evening meal becomes the largest meal of the day.
After that heavy meal, it’s off to the sofa to watch television. After eating, it’s important to stay upright because gravity helps keep the contents in the stomach. Reflux is the result of acid spilling out of the stomach, and lying down with a full stomach makes reflux much more likely.”
9. Do a Post-Holiday Season Detox
A detox can help your body to rid itself of some of accumulated toxins, naturally, while also giving your digestive tract a chance to rest, repair and regroup. This is especially important if you’ve been eating a lot of processed foods, high in sugar and unhealthy fats, along with consuming alcohol, caffeine, artificial sweeteners and other highly refined food additives during the holidays. A natural detox is a healthy tradition to start off the New Year on a healthy note.
Never tried a detox before? Talk to a registered dietitian before getting started. These professionals will help you get on the right track.