As we head into the holiday season, your gut is about to face a number of challenges. All those gatherings, the endless to-do lists, and the meals high in fat and sugar all pose a threat to your gut’s balance. Research is growing that shows the importance of your gut to your overall physical and mental health. The gut-brain axis, connected by the vagus nerve, can determine your health today and down the road. This two-way street means that the stress of the holidays can damage your gut’s health, and that those high-fat, high-sugar, low-fiber meals can contribute to your low mood.
Research shows that an imbalanced gut is linked to all sorts of serious health conditions, ranging from type 2 diabetes to depression. The trillions of bacteria that line your GI tract impact your health. Certain “good” bacteria show the health of the individual, while an abundance of “bad” bacteria or a lack of variety in bacteria usually means an unhealthy person. The good news and bad news is that environmental factors can substantially change your gut’s health. Making healthy choices will help regulate and restore your gut. But unhealthy choices will have the opposite effect. So, as you step into the madness of the next couple of months, make sure you are protecting the health of your gut.
Humans usually handle stress by automatically switching into survival mode, or flight-or-fight mode. This reaction is designed to give your body and brain the ability to prioritize escaping or confronting danger when faced with life-threatening conditions. In such situations, the stomach and digesting food is low on the list of needs. In today’s society, many of us do not encounter dangerous situations regularly. However, stress, especially chronic stress, can send our bodies into that survival mode. There’s a reason stomach aches may be common before a big presentation, an important test, or some other significant challenge. The stress interferes with your body’s normal digestion; your brain opting to prioritize surviving the immediate challenge over processing the food needed for the long term.
All this means that the stress of the holiday season may disrupt your gut’s health. Especially since over the next two months a series of stressful situations may loom on the horizon. Holiday stress is common and stems from all sorts of sources. Some find time with family to be difficult, full of hidden hurt and strained conversations. Others find the busy schedule to be a disquieting and wearing ordeal as social events fill every night of the week. The planning of the season may be stressful, too. Gifts, dishes, decorations require planning and time to shop. Is your anxiety rising already?
Take time this holiday season to manage stress. As your calendar fills, be sure to schedule time to breathe. If you only have time for breathing exercises, it can still help. Regular meditation may help. Or perhaps practicing gratitude. Whatever your method, stress management tools can help keep your stomach on track this season.
Keep the veggies up
A lot of meals may be outside of our control this holiday season. And unhealthy foods and meals are much more common during the holidays. Research shows calorie counts for Thanksgiving and holiday dinners can be as much as triple the recommended calories for a single day. Many traditional holiday foods are stuffed with fat, sodium, and sugar. Foods like these can quickly set your gut off balance. Even one high-fat meal can disrupt your digestive system. And studies report that eating a high-fat, high-sugar diet will mean more “bad” bacteria, and less “good” bacteria in your digestive tract. Don’t lose heart. You can make a few gut healthy choices during the holiday to, at the very least, limit the impact of those high-calorie holiday meals.
Healthy bacteria feed off fiber. And fiber can help eliminate “bad” bacteria from your system. This twofold benefit means it’s important to prioritize fruits, veggies, and whole grains this holiday season. Maybe that means switching a few ingredients so a dish can be whole grain and not processed. Or maybe it means bringing roasted veggies or a salad to gatherings. Whether or not you try to bring a little fiber into your holiday meals, you can still eat fiber the rest of the time. Make sure you’re adding fruits and vegetables to your breakfasts, your lunches, and nonholiday meals. Your gut will be happier, and you will be also.
With gut health demonstrating such a critical impact on overall health, more people are adding probiotic foods to their diets. Also known as fermented foods, probiotics help your body grow “good” bacteria along your digestive tract. These foods include yogurt (active culture), kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir. Adding them to your diet can help balance your gut and keep your digestion on track.
So, to improve your gut health this holiday season, make sure you have probiotic foods on your menu. Yogurt is a great breakfast food, packed with protein to keep you full and probiotics to boost your digestive health. Plain Greek yogurt is also a great substitute for ingredients like sour cream or regular cream in certain dishes. Kimchi and sauerkraut may be a little more challenging to incorporate into your diet, but there are a lot of great recipes to help bring these foods into your lunch and dinners. Experiment this holiday season and find ways to keep probiotics part of your daily diet.
Cooler weather, shorter days, and fuller schedules may make exercise a challenge over the holidays. Add your gut health to the reasons to keep exercising the next few months. Studies show that exercise is very beneficial for your gut, helping regulate digestion and create necessary digestive byproducts, such as short-chain fatty acids. Plus, exercise is one of the most effective ways to manage stress. The busyness and disruption to regular life makes exercising difficult during the holiday season, but look for ways to exercise and spend time with family and friends. Bundle up, and go ice skating or sledding with loved ones. Stay inside, and do yoga or Zumba together. Make sure you carve out time to help your gut by moving your body this holiday season.