The holidays are approaching and we know what that means: decadent food and treats.
The holiday season is filled with temptations, from chocolates to booze to gluten- and dairy-laden cookies, cakes, breads, stuffings and sauces. If you have inflammatory bowel disease, digestive issues or food intolerances, it may seem like the holidays are designed to bum you out and make you feel deprived.
However, the festivities won’t be any fun if you’re holed up in the bathroom with diarrhea. That’s why I’ve put together this holiday digestion survival guide to help you learn how to navigate the next few weeks with joy while keeping your digestion intact.
Even implementing just a few of these suggestions will help you improve and maintain digestion, so I hope you give them a try!
1. Stay away from the foods you normally don’t choose to eat.
If you’re gluten-free or dairy-free or soy-free or egg-free or whatever-free throughout the year, these foods aren’t going to magically become non-reactive for you simply because it’s the holiday season. Remember that you avoid certain foods for a reason – likely because they cause certain symptoms and you feel better without them. So when faced with the temptation of your aunt’s decadent chocolate chip cheesecake, remind yourself that dairy causes you to experience explosive diarrhea or develop a skin rash or break out in pimples. Feeling crappy certainly detracts from holiday cheer!
2. Keep your blood sugar balanced.
Food cravings are more likely to be tamed when you feel satiated and your blood sugar is balanced. Avoid that ‘hangry’ feeling by eating meals and snacks that consist of complex carbohydrates, good sources of protein, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals. For example:
- Halvah-Flavoured Oatmeal
- Blueberry Cacao Green Smoothie
- Carrot Ginger Soup
- Baby Bok Choy Stoup with Coconut and Miso
- Three-Ingredient Vegan Split Pea Soup
It’s helpful to have a healthy snack before you attend a big family dinner so you’re not absolutely starving by the time you arrive. Try having some carrot sticks or crackers with dip, and apple with nut butter, half a sweet potato with coconut oil and hemp seeds, or an elixir. If you’re feeling satiated, you’ll be less likely to gorge on everything in sight and keep your digestion on track.
3. Take digestive bitters and digestive enzymes.
These digestive supplements help you boost production of stomach acid and create enzymes that break down our food, respectively. Bitters are wonderful to take before a meal to kick off the digestive process, but you can also take them during or after if you’ve forgotten.
Recommendations for enzymes vary – some brands suggest they should be taken before a meal, while others recommend during or after. I tend to take my enzymes before I begin eating, but really, as long as you take them with food, they’re still going to be beneficial.
4. Boost the amount of probiotics you take.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help us digest our food, manufacture vitamins, and boost our immune system. If you currently take probiotics, try taking extra to keep your digestion on track. Dosages of probiotics vary – generally, a maintenance dose is around 10 million live cultures, while more healing dosages can be anywhere from 50 million – 100 million live cultures. If you need further assistance, have a chat with your favourite natural health practitioner.
It’s also helpful to boost your intake of fermented foods like sauerkraut, tempeh, kombucha, kimchi, pickles or coconut kefir. Fermented foods are wonderful alongside crudites, dips, flatbreads or crackers, so try serving a little fermented goodness as an appetizer at holiday meals.
5. Avoid overeating.
Excess food stresses our digestive tract and can cause a lot of pain and discomfort. I know it can be difficult to say no to food at a family meal, especially one that is loaded with decadent temptations.
Overeating often happens when we are ruled by our emotions, rather than our intrinsic nutritional needs. Tune into your body and always ask yourself, ‘Am I hungry?’ If you’re hungry, then eat. But if you’re not, find something else to occupy your time.
You can also prevent overeating by fueling yourself with foods that are packed with nutrients (see tip #2 above), rather than empty calories that will compel your brain to continue searching for food.
6. Eliminate stress as much as you possibly can.
There is a substantial link between our digestive tract and our brain. In fact, our gut has its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system, and researchers are learning more and more about how digestion impacts brain function, and vice versa.
When we’re feeling anxious, our body shifts into the sympathetic nervous system, which initiates our fight or flight response. This means that our energy and blood flow is diverted away from the digestive tract, which is ruled by our parasympathic nervous system. We need to be at rest to digest – and when we’re stressed out, digestion is not a priority.
Try to eat in a comfortable, relaxing environment (preferably while sitting at a table, rather than while standing, walking, or sitting in the car). This can certainly be challenging if your family gatherings involve tension, awkwardness, fighting, excess noise, or pressure to get married/have kids/get a job/move home/etc.
If it’s not possible to control your environment, try to take several slow, deep breaths before eating to help initiate relaxation.
The holidays can also be a stressful time when you’re not at the dinner table – whether you’re worried about finances, work, family, or health. Practise stress reduction techniques such as yoga, meditation, walking in nature, or participating in activities you enjoy. I recently purchased a colouring book for grownups and it’s fantastic! It really helps me to shut off my brain, relax and focus on the fun task at hand. And I’m not the only one.
7. Chew your food.
I know this might seem silly and obvious. But it’s really important for digestion. Chewing food thoroughly helps break it down into manageable particles, plus our saliva has enzymes that begin chemical digestion. Chewing triggers the rest of our digestive processes – and it’s a crucial step that many of us rush, myself included. It’s the first link in a sequence of events and if chewing isn’t done properly, nothing else will happen as it should, either.
Sit down, slow down, and really pay attention to eating. Chew, chew, chew, chew your meal, and take at least 20 minutes to consume it. Remember, our digestive tracts don’t have teeth!
8. Troubleshoot with digestive herbs.
Indulging and overeating happens, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, troubleshoot with herbs, spices or teas that will help alleviate nausea, stomaches, gas and bloating. Try one of the following remedies:
- Make yourself a cup of ginger tea with lemon and honey
- Steep mint leaves in warm water
- Chew on some cumin or fennel seeds (you can also brew these as a tea)
- Have a glass of warm water and lemon or apple cider vinegar
You can also take digestive bitters or enzymes if you forgot to take them before or during your meal.
9. Health-ify your favourite foods.
You can still have the foods you love during the holidays – simply adapt them to suit your digestive needs. If you’ve got a favourite dish or treat, it’s guaranteed that you can find a healthy, gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, egg-free or soy-free alternative recipe. For some ideas and resources, check out:
- How to Create Healthy Holiday Cookies
- Allergen-Friendly Remix: Stuffing
- Allergen-Friendly Remix: Gingerbread
- How to Use Dairy-Free Alternatives in Your Favourite Recipes
- Gluten-Free Alternatives to Bread
Armed with these digestive solutions, you can prevent holiday digestive issues before they hit – or alleviate them once they happen. If you’ve got another tip to offer, please share it in the comments below.
Happy, happy Holidays!