This is one of the busiest times of the year for me, and not just because of my own Christmas preparations — but because the number of people seeking help for digestive problems rockets.
The parties, rushing about, lack of sleep and general stress of getting everything done can put your whole system under a lot of pressure.
And all this occurs at a time when many people abandon their healthy eating patterns and drink a bit more than normal.
From the beginning of December onwards I see a lot more clients with bloating, acid reflux and heartburn, while those with pre-existing conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) often experience flare-ups.
The parties, rushing about, lack of sleep and general stress of getting everything done can put your whole system under a lot of pressure, writes Dr Megan Rossi (pictured)
What can you do about it? Well, I’m not here to be the Christmas Grinch — and I’m happy to say that there are ways to enjoy the festivities without your gut suffering the consequences.
First, know your food limits. People become a bit more gung-ho at this time of year and eat things they know have triggered gut problems for them in the past — or they eat more of them than normal, exceeding what their system can tolerate (and yes, Brussels sprouts are often on that list).
Now is not the time to test your tolerance: if onion and garlic lead to bowel urgency or trigger abdominal pain, don’t think you will magically be able to eat them because it’s Christmas.
Did you know?
Feeling anxious or stressed? Chew gum. A review of eight studies, published this year in the Journal of Healthcare Engineering showed it can reduce those emotions (the act of chewing is thought to send ‘de-stressing’ messages to the brain).
Also watch out for too much fatty food, which is a common trigger of acid reflux and IBS. Make a beeline for canapes that are at least 50 per cent plants, such as my coconut-crusted green bean dippers (see recipe, right).
These will instantly lower the fat load and give your gut microbes something to feed on and celebrate, too. (And they’ll reward you by helping to prop up your immune defences, which are vital as we return to face-to-face Christmas dos.)
But too much of anything can be bad news — even fruit, veg and, of course, Christmas favourites such as mince pies.
For most people the odd mince pie is fine, but they’re full of dried fruit and therefore are high in fructose (fruit sugar), so if you eat too many, the pathways in your gut that absorb this type of sugar become overwhelmed.
As A result, you might experience bowel urgency and looseness, and possibly gut pain, too, as your system tries to find other ways to get the sugar out of your body. The same thing can happen if you eat lots of satsumas in one sitting.
In fact, overeating most things can overload the mechanisms through which that food is absorbed. If you develop smellier poops (the smell is the malabsorbed food being fermented by your gut bacteria), bloating and flatulence then this might be why.
It’s not just about what you eat, but when. Saving yourself for a big meal — and skipping breakfast or not eating for the rest of the day (except for maybe a tiny snack) — is the worst thing you can do. Studies have shown that this leads to overeating when people do sit down for a meal, partly because they are so hungry, but also because they feel they can let themselves go.
Having one big meal risks heartburn, too. The stomach is incredibly stretchy — when empty, it’s about the size of your fist, but at full capacity, some people’s stomachs can hold as much as four litres of food or fluid. But this much stretching puts pressure on the valve at the top of the stomach, forcing it open.
The acid contents of the stomach then flush up the gullet, leading to heartburn (the pain you experience in your chest) and reflux (the acid making its way into your mouth).
A better approach is to stick to having breakfast, lunch and dinner, spreading your food intake across the day.
Saving yourself for a big meal — and skipping breakfast or not eating for the rest of the day (except for maybe a tiny snack) — is the worst thing you can do [File photo]
On Christmas Day you could, for example, split the whole meal into three — have that smoked salmon starter for breakfast, turkey roast for lunch, and Christmas pudding for your evening meal.
If you do overindulge, one of the simplest remedies is to go for a walk. Even a ten-minute stroll can get your blood sugar levels and blood pressure down.
This is because when you’re moving, your muscles use more glucose, which means that more is drawn from your blood, lowering your blood sugar levels.
Your blood pressure rises when you eat a big meal because the blood flow is focused on the digestive tract, and in order to maintain adequate blood flow elsewhere, your heart rate increases and your blood vessels contract.
Walking can help stimulate your digestive tract to move things along. This reduces pressure in your stomach, too.
The other way to keep your gut happy is to tackle stress. The link between the gut and the brain is now firmly established, and all that fretting about presents and the turkey may exacerbate your digestive problems.
Stress gets picked up by the enteric nervous system (a network of nerves that sends signals into your gut) — the nerves become over-excited and, in turn, gut movement becomes more erratic.
This can also halt the release of digestive enzymes, meaning food isn’t properly absorbed. The symptoms of malabsorption include bloating and altered bowel movements.
So as the big day approaches you might want to try a few minutes of mindfulness each day. This won’t just calm you down, it can also help improve your sleep (lack of sleep is a trigger for overeating — on average, we consume an extra 385 nutrient-poor calories a day if we haven’t had enough sleep, according to research in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2017).
Clear your mind and focus on the now. Many people find it easiest to use an app, and there are plenty of free ones, including UCLA Mindful (developed by academics).
Obviously, when talking about Christmas gut problems I should mention alcohol, which only adds to your digestive woes.
To avoid this I add mixed frozen berries to my gin and soda: the fibre and plant chemicals in the fruit nourish my gut microbes and slow the rate at which alcohol is absorbed, so I’m less likely to feel rough the next day.
For a festive splash, make your own mulled wine — with an extra dose of cinnamon and cloves.
Cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects, at least in lab studies.
And cloves are rich in eugenol, a plant chemical with impressive antioxidant powers that might help mop up some of that alcohol-induced damage. These are five times more effective than those of vitamin E, according to a 2010 study.
OK, so it’s not a silver bullet, but it may give your body that extra edge the next morning.
I wish all of you a very merry — and gut-happy — Christmas.
I’ve suffered with a fissured tongue for many years, and with ulcers too, occasionally. All my dentist and GP can advise is ‘good oral hygiene’. But could my mouth ulcers be due to gluten sensitivity? I’m 83.
Jean Simper, Bournemouth.
People who have coeliac disease — an autoimmune condition — are more likely to get mouth ulcers if they eat foods with gluten (e.g. wheat, barley or rye).
This is partly because of nutritional deficiencies, as their bodies struggle to absorb iron, vitamin B12 and zinc — important for oral health — but also because the body starts to attack itself in the presence of gluten. A fissured tongue can be genetic, but in some people it can be a sign of malnutrition, which is also common in those with undiagnosed coeliac disease.
If you have recurrent mouth ulcers, it is certainly worth talking to your GP about coeliac disease.
Otherwise, common triggers include poorly fitted dentures, stress, nutritional deficiencies (iron, vitamin B12 and zinc), hormonal changes and toothpaste or mouthwash that contains sodium lauryl sulphate. Genes also play a role — ulcers can run in families.
Most clear up within a week or two. As they heal, limit spicy, acidic and hard foods including chilli, coffee, oranges, tomatoes, strawberries and nuts, as these can irritate the exposed nerve endings.
Try these: Coconut green bean dippers
These crispy, coconutty dippers are low in fat and FODMAPs (foods that contain highly fermentable carbs), making them the perfect canape for sensitive guts.
- 40g oats
- 25g desiccated coconut
- ½ tsp cumin seeds
- ½ tsp turmeric
- ½ tsp mustard seeds
- 2 tsp lime zest
- 180ml milk of choice
- 30g coconut flour
Preheat oven to 200c/180c fan/gas mark 6. Blitz oats in blender for a few seconds to form coarse crumbs. Transfer to a large bowl, add in other crumb ingredients and seasoning, and mix.
Place batter ingredients in a second bowl and mix. Leave to thicken for a few minutes.
Dip the beans into the batter (it will be quite thick, so use your hands to coat) and then into the crumb mix. Place on a lined baking tray and bake for 20 minutes, or until golden and crispy. Eat with your dip of choice.
Contact Dr Megan Rossi
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Good Health, Daily Mail, 9 Derry Street, London W8 5HY — please include contact details. Dr Megan Rossi cannot enter into personal correspondence. Replies should be taken in a general context; always consult your GP with any health worries.