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Go with Your Gut: Keeping Your Gut Healthy During the Holidays

The holidays are here, and even if this time of year tends to make you feel all warm and fuzzy, those most likely aren’t the only feelings it brings about. Chances are, you could also end up feeling a little queasy or lethargic, or you might even experience heartburn or abdominal pain.

Whether you’re filling up on cookies for Christmas, challah for Hanukkah, or catfish and collards for Kwanzaa, all the overeating, rich foods, and stress that often accompany the holiday season can have a real impact on your gut health.

Here’s a look at how “the most wonderful time of year” can affect your health, best and worst foods for gut health, along with some helpful tips on how to keep your gut and your holidays happy.

Gut Feelings: The Gut-Brain Axis

You’re probably familiar with the gut-brain axis. That’s the communication channel between your gut and your brain, usually via your vagus nerve. That means that what happens in your gut doesn’t stay in your gut — everything that your gut is doing affects your brain and vice versa. (1, 23, 4)

Emotions and the gut

We all know that the holidays come with stress. In fact, a survey found that 88% of Americans think that the holiday season is the most stressful time of the year. (5)

In varying degrees, you might be worried about food, family, friends, money, and the laundry list of things you need to get done, including cooking, decorating, shopping, traveling, wrapping, and so much more.

And depending on how your holidays are shaping up and your own personal circumstances, you could be feeling happy and excited this time of year, or you might feel anxious, depressed, lonely, overwhelmed, or stressed. And if you’re feeling that way, your gut is going to feel it, too.

Strong negative emotions, such as anger, depression, or stress, can cause your gastrointestinal tract to contract and lead to a range of symptoms, including abdominal pain, cramps, heartburn, and loose stools. (1, 2, 3, 6)

On top of that, if you’re an emotional eater, you may turn to certain foods to help deal with your troubles when the stresses of the holidays hit. And overeating or consuming unhealthy foods can further aggravate any potential gut issues.  

Because the gut-brain axis is a two-way street, poor gut health can cause you to experience negative emotions and crave certain foods. (1, 2, 3, 4, 6)

The vicious cycle of fatty foods

A study conducted on mice showed that eating food rich in fat actually triggers the desire to eat more fat. Fatty foods in the gut stimulate the vagus nerve and activate centers in the brain that control cravings. This happens when specific cells in the gut respond to the presence of fat by sending signals to the vagus nerve, which tells the brain to send more fat. This makes you crave fatty foods. (7, 8, 9, 10, 4)

Sugar and Spice Aren’t Always So Nice: Worst Foods For Gut Health

The holidays are full of sugary foods and sweet treats: candy canes, chocolate, Christmas cookies, eggnog, pumpkin pie, sufganiyot (Jewish jelly donuts), sweet potato pie, and sugar, sugar, and more sugar. You’ve got visions of sugar-plums dancing in your head, and the real thing on your plate.

The average annual consumption of sugar is estimated to be between 77 and 152 pounds per person. That means that each year, three people together could easily eat the weight of one of Santa’s reindeer in sugar. (11)

We’re not going to sugarcoat it: Eating excess sugar is bad for your health.

That’s surely nothing new to you. You’ve most likely heard it since you were three years old and wanted to eat cookies for breakfast. But do you know how sugar affects your health?

Sugar and your immune system

Not only can eating too much sugar lead to diabetes and heart disease, but it also affects your immune system. Research has shown that people who don’t eat much sugar have better immune function than those who do. (7, 8, 12)

Sugar keeps white blood cells known as killer cells, which act as defenders against bacteria and viruses, from functioning properly. That means that if you’re loaded up on sugar, you’re also more susceptible to getting infections and illnesses. (7, 8, 9, 10)

In addition, if people with diabetes have high blood sugar, this makes them less capable of fighting off disease. That’s why those with diabetes are usually said to have lower immune function. (7, 9, 10)

If you consume 75 grams of sugar — the approximate amount in two cans of sugary soda, or 2.5 slices of cake, or three slices of pumpkin pie, or five Christmas cookies — this will weaken your immune system for five hours afterward. (7)

Sugar and your gut

If you’re eating a bunch of sugary goodies, it probably comes as no surprise that it’s going to affect your gastrointestinal system as well. Sugar can be hard for the body to digest. (11, 12, 13, 14)

You know that feeling after you eat something rich and sweet, when you get the sensation that you’ve swallowed an elephant and it’s just sitting in your gut? Those gut bombs can be the result of excess sugar in the large intestine absorbing water and causing bloating or feelings of heaviness. (15, 16, 17)

Sugar that your body can’t easily digest may remain in your gut until it ferments. Then, as it passes very slowly through your intestines, it can be broken down by bacteria and yeast there, causing them to release gas that then builds up inside you. This can lead to cramping, pain, and spasms. (13, 14, 15, 18)

And you’re not the only one who enjoys eating sugar — parasites like it, too. Sugar feeds the parasites in your gut, and like bacteria and yeast, they release gas when they feed, which means you’re likely to experience bloating. It can also hurt the good bacteria in your gut thast keep you healthy. (11, 19, 20, 21)

Your liver helps your body process sugar and regulate your blood sugar levels. Whatever sugar you don’t need to burn for energy is stored in the liver or converted to fat, also stored in the liver. That means that too much sugar can lead to liver damage. (13, 15, 22)

Eating a lot of sugar can also cause diarrhea and weight gain, as well as raising your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. (11, 23)

The World Health Organization says that you should take in no more than six teaspoons, or 25 grams, of sugar daily. So try to limit how much sugar you have in your diet. Pretty please with sugar on top. (24)

Traditionally Speaking

Many people are motivated to do certain things or eat certain foods this time of year, often due to nostalgia, tradition, or good old-fashioned holiday expectations. In other words, they do it because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do or what they’ve always done.

For example, you might eat fruitcake and sip hot cocoa because that’s what Christmas means to you — or because the happy people in the Christmas movies make it seem like a good idea. But do you even really like fruitcake? (Does anyone, for that matter?)

Certain foods might remind you of holidays you spent as a kid. Or you might feel like Thanksgiving just isn’t Thanksgiving without your grandma’s famous pecan pie, so you’ll eat a large piece — even if you’re already full.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with eating foods that make you feel good — they don’t call them comfort foods for nothing. But try to make food choices that are going to continue making you feel good, and never eat something unhealthy just because you feel like you should.

You’re Getting Very Sleepy…

So, you’ve just finished a giant Thanksgiving dinner, and now all you want to do is take that post-turkey nap. Or maybe you fight off the urge to grab some Zs, turn on the big football game, and find yourself drifting off so much that you miss that 74-yard touchdown dash.

Why do we feel so sleepy after we have a big meal? There are many things going on in your body that lead to that “food coma,” or post-meal drowsiness, whose official name is postprandial somnolence. Here are some of the reasons for the food fatigue you’re feeling: (25, 26, 27, 28)

  • Alcohol: You probably already know that drinking can make you tired. If you have alcohol with a meal, that is going to intensify the drowsy-inducing effect of the food. (29, 30)

  • Blood sugar: As you consume food, the amount of sugar in your blood spikes. Insulin in your body pulls the sugar from your bloodstream and helps convert it to energy. (31, 32

However, if you have insufficient insulin or insulin resistance, or if your blood sugar levels are too high for the insulin to do its job, your blood sugar will stay elevated, and you’ll feel tired as a result. (33, 34)

  • Digestion: It takes a good amount of energy for your body to chew and digest your food, and the more and heavier the food you consume, the greater the amount of energy required. It takes between 30 and 40 hours to digest a meal. And if your body is working hard on digestion, that’s going to leave less energy elsewhere, and you’re bound to feel fatigued. (35, 36)

  • Hormones: Some foods have hormones in them that can make you tired. Take tryptophan, for instance. This notorious hormone is best known for its presence in turkey and is blamed for a lot of sleepy folks after Thanksgiving meals. But tryptophan is also found in chicken, cheese, eggs, fish, and other protein-rich foods. (16, 17, 37

In addition, your body produces extra serotonin when you eat. Serotonin is the hormone that helps control your mood and sleep patterns. It likely plays a role in the temporary high you feel when eating certain foods. However, some experts think that it may also make you feel more tired after meals. (16, 17, 38)

  • Sleep: Obviously, how much sleep you get has an influence on how tired you are during the day, and that includes the times after you eat. Most adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep every night. But keep in mind that it’s not just the quantity, but also the quality of the sleep you get that matters. (39, 40)

How to Improve Your Gut Health During the Holiday Season  

Now that you know some of the ways that the holidays can be a real gut punch, what can you do about it?

Boost your immune system

Your immune system can be overloaded this time of year, with the effects of sugar and plenty of fall and winter viruses. Work on supporting your immune function so that it can help protect you and keep you and your gut healthy.

There are certain supplements that you can take to help stimulate your immune system, and immune-boosting foods include: (41, 18, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46)

  • Almonds
  • Bell peppers (the red ones)
  • Broccoli
  • Citrus fruits (grapefruit, lemons, limes, oranges, tangerines, etc.)
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Kiwi
  • Papaya
  • Poultry
  • Shellfish (crab, lobster, mussels, oysters)
  • Spinach
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Yogurt (especially the Greek variety)

Exercise moderation

Nobody’s telling you that you can’t have a slice of Grandma’s pecan pie that you love so much, or fried chicken or stuffing or cornbread casserole or potato latkes. Unless you have an allergy, no food has to be entirely off-limits. Just don’t overdo it with whatever you decide to eat.

You may have already heard this many times, but the following is still worthwhile advice (and now, it’s even backed by science!):

You don’t have to sample everything on the buffet — or the Thanksgiving dinner table. Be choosy about what you put in your mouth, and select those foods that really appeal to you and that you feel are worth the calories. If everything looks amazing, take small portions of each dish so that you can have at least a taste of it all.

Chew your food slowly so that you can enjoy your meal and really savor the flavor, rather than just scarfing it down. Only eat as much as you really want to. It doesn’t matter if it’s because Aunt Gertrude flubbed the recipe or you’re just not in the mood — if something doesn’t taste delicious for whatever reason, stop eating it.

The research behind eating in moderation

Research has shown that food — especially sweet food — tastes better at first than it does after many bites. This is because as you continue eating, your taste buds actually start to be dulled to the taste of certain foods, and the flavors become less intense. (20)

So listen to your body. Whether you’re getting full, or the food simply isn’t as tasty as when you first dug in, it’s okay not to finish it. Feeling guilty about not cleaning your plate? That’s what leftovers are for.

Your body actually has natural mechanisms to control how much you eat.

Your body fat releases a hormone known as leptin. Over the long term, leptin is meant to help your body maintain a healthy weight by making you feel full when you eat. If you have the proper levels of leptin, you will be less inclined to overeat when your body has taken in enough calories to function. (5, 19, 20)

The opposing hormone to leptin is ghrelin, which induces your feelings of hunger. Together, leptin and ghrelin are the yin and yang of hunger pangs. (5, 47, 48)

People who don’t produce enough leptin, have leptin-resistance, produce excess ghrelin, or simply choose to ignore feelings of fullness in honor of having seconds (or thirds) during a meal are more prone to overeating. Consuming sugar in the form of fructose may also increase the production of ghrelin and make you feel hungrier. (19, 49)

In addition, wearing your stretchy, elastic-waistband pants to a decadent supper may be the comfy way to go when you’re planning to indulge. But when your stomach gets all bloated and distended from eating a lot, it’s trying to tell you something. A puffy tummy triggers nerves in the stomach lining to tell you to ease up on your eating. (50, 51)

If you eat slowly — and wear pants tight enough to let you feel what your stomach is doing —you’ll be better able to interpret what your body is saying to you. Call it gut instinct.

Get moving

You already know that exercise has many benefits. But did you know that exercising after a meal can be especially helpful?

After you’ve just filled up on platefuls of holiday ham and mashed potatoes, probably the last thing you want to do is exercise. You’re stuffed. You’re tired. The couch is calling your name. But now is not the best time to be sedentary.

Even 10 to 30 minutes of moderate-level exercise shortly after a meal can help improve digestion and the absorption of nutrients, prevent diabetes and heart disease, stabilize your blood sugar levels, and make you feel satisfied or full for longer. That can curb your cravings for more food (this is especially useful if dessert hasn’t been served yet). (52, 21, 22)

Now, keep in mind that exercise can be any physical activity that gets your heart pumping and can be as simple as going for a short walk, taking the stairs, or cleaning the house — and after a big holiday meal, there’s probably plenty to clean! The effects of even an easy-going post-meal workout can last for up to 48 hours. (22)

It’s not recommended (and is ill-advised) to exercise strenuously just after eating — that way lies indigestion, upset stomach, vomiting, or worse.

To have an idea of timing, the level of glucose in your blood will reach its max within 90 minutes of a meal. So to keep your blood sugar levels balanced, try to begin exercising within half an hour of the time when you first started to eat. (21, 53)

A nice walk outdoors while it’s still light provides the added bonus of a vitamin D boost from sunlight, which can help your mood and emotional well-being. (54, 55, 56)

If you’re able to get 30 minutes of exercise every day, as the CDC suggests, this will not only help with weight loss and blood sugar maintenance, but it can also help your gut health by reducing gas and bloating. It will improve your sleep and is great for your heart as well. (57)

So, after a big holiday meal, consider going for even a brief stroll around the block (check out the holiday decorations in your neighborhood) before you plop yourself down in front of the TV to watch It’s a Wonderful Life for the rest of the evening. 

Get rid of parasites

Parasite cleanses can protect your gut by eliminating any parasites that might be putting your gut health at risk.

Get some sleep

Sleep is important for so many things in your body. Sleep helps your brain rest and reset, gives you energy, and improves your digestion and gut health.

In addition, studies have shown that sleep-deprived people produce higher levels of ghrelin and lower levels of leptin. That means that when you don’t get enough sleep, you feel hungrier. And if you feel hungry even though your body is getting enough nutrients, you’re likely to overeat. Not to mention that you are bound to make wiser and better food choices when you’re well-rested. (19, 58, 59, 60)

Manage your stress

Feeling the weight of holiday stresses? Put down that cookie sheet, take a break from holiday shopping and decorating, leave your house guests to fend for themselves for an hour, and try one of these instead. It will help calm you: (61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79)

  • Essential oils
    • Citrus oils can help with digestion and kidney function.
    • Flower oils such as lavender are calming and soothing.
    • Peppermint can ease nausea or feelings of being full or bloated.
    • Peppermint and spearmint affect gut motility.
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness and positive self-talk
  • Yoga 

Prep your gut

Try taking digestive enzymes to better break down food and ease some of the strain on your gut. Also, consuming more prebiotics and probiotics before, during, and after the holidays help prepare your gut for the additional holiday burdens coming its way, support your gut during the holiday season, and help it recover after.

Best foods for gut health

Prebiotics promote gut health by feeding the good bacteria in your microbiome. Prebiotic foods include: (80, 81, 82, 83)

  • Artichokes
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Chicory
  • Garlic
  • Leafy greens
  • Leeks
  • Oats
  • Onions
  • Soybeans
  • Whole grains (including barley, brown rice, bulgur, and quinoa, as well as whole-grain breads, cereal, and pasta)

Probiotic foods are chock full of good bacteria that can do wonders for your gut. Probiotics are often fermented foods, such as: (84, 85, 86, 87)

  • Fermented soy products, including miso, natto, and tempeh
  • Kefir
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Sauerkraut
  • Yogurt 

Other gut-friendly foods include those that are high in fiber. These can help keep you regular, because constipation can really put a damper on your holiday comfort and joy.

Foods rich in fiber include: (88, 89, 90, 91, 92)

  • Beans and lentils
  • Dried fruits
  • Fresh fruits, including apples (skin-on), blackberries, blueberries, oranges, pears (skin-on), raspberries, and strawberries 
  • Oat and wheat bran
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Veggies 

Finally, it’s good to keep the inflammation down in your body to avoid irritating your gut. Anti-inflammatory foods include: (93, 94, 95, 96

  • Fatty fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines, tuna) 
  • Flax seeds
  • Fruits, including berries, cherries, grapes, and oranges
  • Olive oil
  • Nuts, especially almonds and walnuts
  • Vegetables (such as broccoli, peppers, tomatoes and leafy vegetables — including collards, kale, and spinach)

Support your liver

From the minute you rip open your first candy bar at Halloween to the moment you ring in the New Year with chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne, the holiday season brings a sugar overload. And your gut and liver can suffer.

Support your liver to avoid damage from excess sugar and to keep your blood sugar levels in balance. A healthy liver can help take some of the stress off your gut as well.

Some basic methods to take care of your liver include: (97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102)

  • Drinking coffee (Yup, coffee in moderation may actually be good for the liver, but just don’t overdo it.)
  • Eating a healthy diet full of fruits and veggies, whole grains, and good fats from fish, nuts, and seeds
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Keeping a healthy body weight
  • Limiting your intake of alcohol, fat, refined carbs, and sugar
  • Taking supplements — but beware! The herbs in many supplements can actually cause liver damage.

Gut Reactions to the Holidays

The holiday season can be a fun time of year, full of family, festivities, food, and friends. But you want your gut to be able to get in on the fun as well. When your stomach isn’t quite in the holiday spirit, no one’s going to have a good time. It takes guts to really enjoy the holidays.

Focus on supporting your entire gastrointestinal system for maximum gut health before, during, and after the season. Be kind to your liver and immune system this time of year as well.

There are plenty of things you can do to ensure you’ll be feeling merry and bright in no time. With just a little preparation, you should be able to have yourself a merry little Christmas — or whichever holiday(s) you observe. Stay healthy, and celebrate your guts out!