How to Handle Gut Issues at the Holidays

GI experts offer their tips for managing digestive distress at the holidays.

December 05, 2022

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Photo by: 10'000 Hours/Getty

10'000 Hours/Getty

If you have digestion concerns, participating in holiday celebrations can be stressful. With parties full of crafty cocktails, rich food and late nights, it can be the perfect storm to bring on a stomachache or worse. Whether you’re concerned about bloating, heartburn, stomach distress or bathroom troubles, we asked gastrointestinal experts for their best advice when it comes to navigating gut issues at the holidays.

Upset Stomach

An upset stomach can feel different for each individual, but it’s usually due to inflammation of the stomach lining and intestines and can be caused by eating too much. (In more severe cases, an update stomach can be caused by viruses.) “The holidays bring in a lot of new foods for the gut and that can be one of the biggest reasons you may notice an upset stomach,” Amanda Sauceda, MS, RD owner of The Mindful Gut, LLC explains. “Your gut likes consistency and the holidays may mean you have access to foods you only get once a year.”

Plus, you tend to want to eat more of those holiday foods, which can lead to overeating and an unhappy gut. Combine that with the fact that holiday foods are sometimes high in fat and/or fried, and it’s the perfect combination for an upset stomach. Here’s how Sauceda recommends managing stomach upset at the holidays.

  • Eat before and after your event: For big holiday parties you can help your gut by eating simple foods a day or so before the event. By not overdoing it prior to the event your stomach will be in a better spot when you indulge in the yummy foods at the party.
  • Keep ginger tea and a hot water bottle on hand: These help for when you need some immediate relief. Ginger can help aid an upset stomach and the heat from the water bottle can be soothing.

Bloating

Bloating is the sensation of fullness, increased stomach pressure or the feeling of having excess gas. We asked GI expert Kate Scarlata, MPH, RDN, LDN for her top tips when it comes to keeping bloating at bay.

  • Don’t skip meals: Eat three balanced meals a day even when you have a party to attend. Eating regularly (read: like you normally would) will help you avoid binging on the party food, which is a sure-fire recipe for feeling bloated.
  • Chew your food: Digestion starts in the mouth. Make time to chew and savor the flavor of all that delicious party food.
  • Limit use of chewing gum and straws: Both can add air into the gut contributing to that bloated belly.
  • Limit highly fermentable carb-rich foods: If you find foods like onion, garlic, wheat, apple, and pears make you feel bloated, consume them in moderation at a party. The carbs in these foods act as “fast food” for the microbes in your gut, which can create copious intestinal gas.

Heartburn

Heartburn is a mild burning sensation in the mid-chest or throat that often occurs after eating and lying down. During the holidays, most folks suffer from acute heartburn, which can occur when we overeat, eat irregularly (like when we skip meals), overeating at the next meal or evening partaking in midnight snacks. Scarlata provides several tips on how to prevent heartburn during the festivities.

  • Don’t overeat: Listen to your body. Eat slowly and stop eating when you feel about 80% full.

  • Take dessert to go: If you want a dessert, but feel full, take one to go for later when you feel hungry again.

  • Stop eating about 3 hours before bed: This allows the acid production in your stomach to slow down. Lying flat with a full stomach allows acid to move into the esophagus more easily leading to heartburn symptoms.

  • Moderate your alcohol: Alcohol is a common heartburn trigger, so it’s important to drink in moderation. The dietary guidelines for Americans recommend one drink for women and two for men per day.

  • Fill up on lower fat foods: Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein tend to move out of the stomach quicker than heavy fatty dishes, which can help avoid heartburn.

  • Avoid citrus- and tomato-based foods: These types of foods irritate some folks with heartburn. If they add to your heartburn symptoms, it’s best to avoid them or eat them in moderation.

Constipation

Constipation accounts for at least 8 million annual visits to health care providers in the US. It is defined as infrequent passing of stool (typically fewer than three bowel movements per week). The stool is often dry, hard and may be accompanied by a sense of incomplete emptying. To help keep your bod as regular as possible, try these tips from Scarlata.

  • Maintain an exercise program: Body movement helps with gut motility and constipation. Though it can be tough to squeeze in workouts in between holiday festivities, even a walk can help keep things moving.
  • Listen to your body: When you feel the natural urge to go, don’t wait it out! The more time you allow stool to stay in your colon, the drier it becomes, making it harder to pass.
  • Try psyllium husk: This is a fiber supplement which adds bulk and softens stool for easy elimination can help relieve constipation. Make sure to check with a healthcare provider before adding supplements to your diet.
  • Snack on prunes: It’s not just an old wives’ tale. Prunes are rich in sorbitol, a natural laxative.
  • Ease into the day with a hot beverage: Allowing time in the morning to wake up, sip on some hot coffee or tea (caffeine and warm beverages can stimulate gut motility) and eat your first meal can aid in a more complete bowel movement.

Diarrhea

Diarrhea is defined as loose, watery stools three or more times a day. Acute diarrhea is a common issue that typically lasts one to two days. Sauceda provides tips to help when diarrhea hits during the holidays.

  • Minimize holiday stress: Stress can contribute to loose stool, so it’s important to find ways to manage stress at the holidays. Meditation, a light exercise routine or talking to a friend can all help minimize stress.
  • Be mindful of the foods you’re eating: Eating too much rich, high-fat food can cause diarrhea. You don’t have to stay away from these foods altogether, though. Instead look at the quantity and frequency with which you eat them. Try taking half the portion at dinner or skip leftovers.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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