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How to support your gut health at Christmas

Christmas is coming and so are the stories and anxiety around over-eating, over-drinking and feeling the after-effects…

Even the healthiest of us can over-indulge during the Festive season, at office parties, family dinners and celebrations with friends – and the vast majority of us will experience digestive upset as a result.

The extent of the impact on our gut health varies from person to person, with some of us experiencing mild bloating and discomfort and others suffering from severe IBS-type symptoms, such as flatulence, diarrhoea and constipation. For people with sensitive digestion, the festive period can be one of severe discomfort and anxiety.

Even throughout the holidays, it is important to support your digestive system - eat plenty of vegetables with your Christmas dinner to fuel your gut with beneficial bacteria.

How over-eating impacts the gut

Eating too much food puts extra pressure on our digestive system, as our body is required to produce additional stomach acid and digestive enzymes to break down all of the food into particles small enough to digest. This can overload the digestive system and can lead to larger particles being digested through the gut wall, which can result in inflammation. It can also lead to fermentation of the undigested food particles by the pathogenic bacteria in our gut, which can cause bloating and other digestive issues, such as constipation, diarrhoea or flatulence.

Protein can be particularly difficult for many people to digest, particularly as we get older, as stomach acid is required for protein digestion and levels of stomach acid fall as we age. As a result, the high amounts of meat, poultry and other protein we eat during the festive period can cause us to feel excessively full, bloated and sluggish.

Fat digestion can also be an issue for some, as healthy bile is required for fat digestion and the fatty foods and meals we eat during the festive season can require high levels of bile to break them down. Good liver function is required for healthy bile production and this is particularly relevant for those who have had their gallbladder removed and cannot store enough bile to digest large amounts of fat at once.

Eating lots of sugar impacts both our blood sugar and digestion, as our pancreas produces both the insulin required to maintain blood sugar balance and the enzymes required to digest our food. Our body considers blood sugar balance to be more important than digestive function, so if the pancreas is busy producing insulin, enzyme production will fall and we will struggle to break down and digest our food.

What about hydration?

Eating too much and drinking alcohol (an inevitable consequence of festive parties for many) may also reduce water intake, which can in turn worsen digestive symptoms and potentially lead to dehydration and constipation.

In addition, drinking alcohol impacts our liver’s ability to perform its many functions, including detoxifying sugar, medications and hormones, and the production of bile. Alcohol also impacts the balance of bacteria in our microbiome, and this can lead to bloating and other GI issues. Excessive alcohol consumption can also lead to nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, directly impacting our digestive system and our microbiome balance.

Recommendations to support gut health (and still join the festivities)

Help support yourself to get through the festive season feeling as digestively well as possible by focusing on these key recommendations:

  1. Eat your fill of vegetables with each meal – ideally covering one third to one half of your plate with them. By ensuring an abundant and diverse variety of veg throughout December, you’ll be feeding your beneficial gut bacteria. Now might be a good time to try some vegetables that you don’t normally buy. Adding them to your diet will give your good gut bacteria something to feast on and help to maintain balance in your microbiome. Polyphenol compounds in many fruits and vegetables also provide prebiotic, anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory benefits for the gut.
  • Add in some seasonal gut superfoods – Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and other green vegetables are great for supporting the gut and liver. Red cabbage, beetroot and cranberries are all rich in anthocyanin antioxidants to help support immunity and protect against inflammation. Root vegetables (pumpkin, swede, parsnips, turnips, winter squash) all provide fibre and antioxidants and are also good sources of minerals from the soil they are grown in. Seasonal winter fruits include clementines, which are rich in vitamin C, and apples and pears, which are great for gut health, especially when stewed.
  • Stay hydrated – aim for at least two litres of water each day in addition to other drinks. Many of us have the central heating on 24/7 to combat the cold which, combined with an increase in fizzy and alcoholic drinks and a reduction in water intake, can leave us dehydrated. Signs that you need to increase your water consumption include increased thirst, dark urine, slower digestion, constipation, bloating, headaches or feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
  • Keep an eye on portion sizes – stick as close as possible to your normal daily food intake. Christmas dinner is a more sumptuous affair than normal meals, but aiming to consume no more than normal at other mealtimes can help feelings of discomfort and bloating that might be caused by overeating. You can always come back for second helpings if you want to.
  • Think about taking a break – try to leave four hours between meals. Taking time out between meals for your digestion to thoroughly break down and absorb one meal before you start the next can make a real difference to how you feel. Yes, this might mean saying ‘no’ to mince pies and a slice of Christmas cake mid-afternoon, but you could feel better in the long run. You could also benefit from adding in an overnight break of 12 hours or more – pushing breakfast back slightly in the morning can often allow time for this.
  • Find time for some activity and exercise – a 30-minute after-dinner walk can be a great way to help move foods through your digestive system, clear your head and have some fun. An early evening walk around the neighbourhood to take in Christmas lights could be a nice way to end the day (and build up an appetite for supper). Alternatively, wrap up warm and get everyone outside in the garden or local park for some fun and games – adults too!
  • Sleep – 7-8 hours of good quality sleep is essential to allow our bodies to digest and detoxify all the food and drink we are consuming. A dark cool bedroom and a soothing before-bed routine can help us to nod off and sticking to regular sleep and wake times wherever possible can help to ensure we get a good night’s sleep every night.
  • De-stress – our digestive function is directly affected by our stress levels. If the body is in ‘fight or flight’ mode caused by excessive stress, our digestion will be temporarily ‘downgraded’ to allow our bodies to ‘upgrade’ bodily functions necessary to deal with the stress. Christmas can be a very stressful period as families come together and there can be pressure to ‘get things right’. Introducing relaxation techniques such as a soak in the bath or some deep breathing can help to alleviate feelings of stress and support healthy digestion.
  • Take a probiotic…probiotics act as proxies (substitutes) for our ‘friendly’ gut bacteria, so can help to support the balance of bacteria in our intestines and to ensure that we do not experience symptoms caused by an imbalance in our microbiome, also known as dysbiosis. These symptoms can include bloating, gas and other digestive issues, but can also include lowered immunity, energy and mood as our gut bacteria perform a myriad of functions in our body.
  1. Healthy Christmas food swaps

If you want to go a step further to support your gut this festive season, consider switching out some of the traditional ‘festive’ foods with the following ‘swaps’:

  • Eat all the vegetables on your plate first to ensure you are not too full by the time you get around to eating them. If you plan to leave anything, make it the potatoes, pigs in blankets and/or some of the meat.
  • Include lots of brightly coloured fruit in place of reaching for the chocolates – tangerines and satsumas are particularly seasonal and help to provide vitamin C, but don’t forget about other fruits (apples, pears, berries, melon, kiwi, grapefruit, oranges).
  • Choose nuts over crisps – particularly shelled pistachios or monkey nuts (peanuts in shells) that take time to ‘unwrap’ individually.
  • Choose the healthiest starter on the menu – vegetable soup (without bread) or a salad (traditional prawn cocktail still appears regularly on Christmas menus – be sure to eat the lettuce) are both a good choice.
  • Pass on the pudding or choose fruit salad or a dessert that contains fruit (crumble, pie, cheesecake) and replace brandy butter and cream with half-fat crème fraiche.
  • Have herbal tea after dinner instead of coffee – a mint tea can replace the after-dinner mints and is great for supporting digestion – or try ginger, fennel or camomile, which can all help soothe the gut.
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