How to look after your digestive health over the festive season

Ah, Christmas is here again! And what a lovely time of year it is. It is a time for friends, family, festivities and food. Lots of it! If you walk along the supermarket aisles you can see all the tempting Christmas treats on display – chocolates, mince pies, pigs in blankets, festive cheeses, warming mulled wine... the list is endless. I’m sure we all subconsciously tug on our clothes knowing that they will sit just a little more snuggly as we enter the New Year. 

Now, I’m not here to tell you not to enjoy the naughty nibbles. There is no need to deprive yourself or sit and watch while everyone around you is tucking into that Christmas cake. But the secret is to indulge, and not to over indulge. Our digestive systems can take quite a knock at this time of year as we tend to eat richer foods and plenty of it! This can lead to bloating, gas and constipation, and let’s face it, none of these experiences are particularly pleasant. So here are a few tips to help you look after your digestive health throughout the festive season.

Stay hydrated

Drink one and a half to two litres of water a day. Drinking enough water will help prevent bloating and constipation by softening the stools and allowing easy transit through the bowels for excretion. A sluggish transit time also means increased bacterial fermentation within the bowel, leading to excess gas and bloating.

Don’t forget your fruit and veggies

Fruits and vegetables are a wonderful source of fibre, adding bulk to the stools by absorbing water, keeping waste matter softer and heavier, allowing easy passage through the bowels for excretion. They are also packed full of antioxidants and nutrients, which will help your body stay healthy under the extra strain that the party season brings. Try roasting some seasonal root vegetables – it is easy and nutritious. Chop up some peeled beetroot, sweet potatoes, carrots and onions, toss in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and some fresh thyme. Roast for about 45 minutes. You can eat it as a warm salad with some crumbled feta cheese, lightly toasted pumpkin seeds and a good drizzle of olive oil. Delicious! Pumpkin seeds may be small, but they are packed full of nutrients and are a good source of protein and healthy unsaturated fats.

Be careful of too many sugary snacks and nibbles

It’s hard to avoid sugary food altogether, but try to be mindful of how much sugar you are eating. The ‘bad’ bacteria in our gut feed off sugar, and for them Christmas really has come when we indulge on not just one mince pie, but two or three! The result is excess bacterial fermentation, which causes bloating.  You don’t need to say no altogether, but have a little taster that you savour and then opt for healthier snacks such as nuts and olives, or my personal favourite, smoked salmon blinis with some dill crème fraiche. 

Think about the day or evening ahead and eat accordingly

One of the main reasons we feel bloated at this time of year is simply because we overeat.  So if you know that you’re going to be having a big lunch, eat a healthy and balanced breakfast such as porridge with homemade spiced apple compote (can be made ahead and frozen) and walnuts, and avoid snacks before lunch. Most importantly - don’t skip meals to ‘make space’ for a big meal. Skipping a meal will only send your blood sugar plummeting, leaving you feeling tired as your body has no fuel to function. You’re also much more likely to reach for the sugary foods before you even sit down to the lunch table as your body will be crying out for energy.

Give your liver a rest

The liver is a slave to our indulgences. It is the most overworked organ in the body as it has so many functions, one of these being processing everything we put into our bodies (food, nutrients, alcohol and drugs). Once these substances enter our bloodstream via the small intestine, the liver decides what to do with them (lets them pass, breaks them down or stores them). This is no small feat, and the liver will be working overtime while you enjoy the festivities. It is a good idea to give the liver a day off every few days, eating healthy meals and avoiding alcohol altogether if you can. And if you are waking up with a headache, try to cure the hangover with plenty of water and fresh air and steer clear of the added burden of paracetamol. You could also try a green juice as an alternative hangover cure. Blitz together some kale, celery, rocket, parsley, half an apple and juice from half a lemon. Not only is a juice hydrating, but cruciferous vegetables contain nutrients that help detoxify the liver. They are also cleansing to the digestive system, thus removing toxins through the process of elimination.

Get some exercise

Yes, that’s right… you will feel so much better for it. Exercise prevents constipation by stimulating the muscles of the bowel, thereby reducing constipation and bloating. You don’t need to overdo it. A brisk walk in the fresh air will do wonders for body and mind, and there are many yoga postures that will aid digestion and relieve gas and constipation.

Relax and breathe!

Although many of us have time off work during the Christmas season, it is not always very relaxing and can actually be rather stressful! A stressed you means a stressed gut, and this can cause digestive mayhem. When you’re stressed, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode, meaning energy is diverted away from the digestive system until the “danger” is gone and you get back to normal. This is a primal response that hasn’t changed since man needed to fight for survival in the wild. You see, in the face of danger, digestion is not a priority, but energy to fight or run away from danger is. So take a deep breath and relax.

Get enough sleep

Sleep is vital and your digestive system will love you for it. You won’t be eating or drinking anything while you sleep, giving your digestive organs time to rest and recover. Added bonus is your liver reboots during a good deep sleep. Also, tiredness can make you feel irritable, unable to function properly and stressed, so adequate sleep will also help reduce the digestive symptoms associated with increased stress.

Finally, and most importantly… enjoy yourself! Don’t over-analyse every morsel that passes your lips or worry unnecessarily about that extra serving of Christmas pudding. Remember that it is what you eat on a regular basis that affects your long-term health, not the occasional indulgence. 

Merry Christmas!  

Please remember that everyone is an individual and that the above advice is generic and aimed at people without any illnesses, food allergies or intolerances.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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