The tree is up, the candles are glowing, and the only thing left to do is enjoy a happy holiday, right? If IBS is making your season more stressful than silly, there are several things you can do to get back on track.
We've chatted with some expert dietitians to put together a holiday survival guide for our IBS readers. Avoid spending Christmas day in the bathroom this year. Read on to find out our top 5 tips for an IBS-friendly Christmas.
1. Forget the fizz: Keep carbonated drinks to a minimum
Who doesn't love a glass of champagne or some other delicious bubbles on the holidays? Your digestion, that's who. While bubbles add some festive fizz to the holidays, they can also lead to gas pain and flatulence. Carbonated drinks, such as champagne, prosecco, beer, and soda, introduce gas directly into the stomach, some of which can be released by belching. The remaining gas, however, can become trapped in your digestive tract.
Water, non-caffeinated drinks, and other non-carbonated drinks are recommended to people with IBS to help minimize gastrointestinal symptoms. This doesn't mean you have to miss out on the fun—just try switching your champagne to chardonnay. Easy!
2. Ho, Ho, Woah! Supervise your snacking
Whether it's a work party or Christmas day, most holiday events come with a heavenly spread of treats. However, despite their miniature size, holiday snacks often pack a big high-fat, high-sugar, and high FODMAP punch. A 2001 survey of 300 people with IBS published in Digestion Journal revealed that 44% of people linked fatty food intake with the commencement of an IBS flare-up.
An easy trick to prevent overindulging or feeling left out is to take a small plate and mentally divide it into thirds: two thirds for your tum and one third for fun. Fill (but don't pile) two-thirds of the plate with IBS-safe snack foods, like fresh prawns, baked potato chips, lean meat, or low FODMAP fruits. For the other third, choose one or two treats: a little mince pie or one or two chocolates. Carry the plate with you as you mingle, and don't go back for seconds.
3. Be merry and mindful at the dinner table
With turkey and all the trimmings at the Christmas table, it's common to overeat. After all, it says "eat, drink, and be merry!", not "eat, drink, and watch your portions." When the drinks and conversations are flowing, it becomes difficult to pay attention to how much you're eating, which can lead to overconsumption and digestion problems later on.
A study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research showed a clear link between binge eating and gastrointestinal symptoms consistent with IBS in both men and women. In addition to watching your portions and skipping seconds, practice mindful eating this Christmas.
Some tips on how to eat mindfully include:
- Engage your senses: take notice of the food before you put it in your mouth. What does it smell like, how does it look, and what is the texture? Take a moment to appreciate it.
- Eat slowly: Chew your food, and take note of the flavor. Try to pick out elements that you like. Savor it as you chew.
- Acknowledge your feelings: Does a burst of flavor make you immediately want to pop another serving on your plate? Are you excited to have more? Nervous about overeating? Does a flavor bring back certain emotions? Listen to your feelings.
- Be present: Between bites, put your knife and fork down. Be present in the room; sip your drink, be part of the conversations, and enjoy other aspects of the event. You might want to take note of the decorations or the music. Feed your mind and your belly.
- Pay attention to your hunger cues: Over the holidays, many people struggle to distinguish between actual hunger and non-hunger triggers for eating. Listen to your stomach, and when you're no longer hungry—stop.
4. Want a silent night? Plan to keep gas and other symptoms away
Even at Christmas, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Whether you're having people over or heading out for Christmas day, make an IBS plan before the festivities begin:
- Keep your medication close: Keep some antacids, pain medicines, and anti-flatulence medications on hand, and pack an emergency kit if celebrations are far from home.
- Check the menu: If you're not hosting, make sure you ask what will be served and check ingredients for potential IBS triggers.
- BYO gut-friendly alternatives: offer to bring a salad, side-dish, or dessert that's big enough to share—that way, you can relax knowing that one dish is 100% IBS-safe.
- Locate the bathroom early on: Ask your host where the bathrooms are ahead of time, in case you get an urgent call of nature, and pack air freshener in your bag. If you're comfortable asking, see if you can use a bathroom further away from other guests.
- Share your feelings: Feeling nervous about a possible flare? Let your guests/host know that you're living with a health condition that means you have to watch your diet or excuse yourself to the bathroom occasionally.
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5. T'is the season to be jolly — and calm
While holidays bring joy, they can also be a huge source of stress for many people. Financial pressures, time pressures, and IBS anxiety can all lead to an increase in digestive problems.
One study suggests that stressful life events can worsen abdominal pain and abdominal distension (bloating) in up to one-third of people with IBS. What's more, evidence from clinical and experimental research shows that psychological stresses have a significant impact on intestinal sensitivity and how your intestines function.
Reduce the likelihood of Christmas IBS attacks by managing your stress during the holidays. Some ways to reduce stress include:
- Manage expectations: Don't feel obliged to buy more than you can afford, arrive earlier than you can, or do more than you're able to. Be realistic and communicate expectations with family and friends.
- Take some exercise: Exercise is often noted to have a beneficial effect on mood, but did you know it can also affect your gut? A 2011 randomized control trial showed that moderate exercise can improve gastrointestinal symptoms of IBS.
- Breathe it out: Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to have a positive effect on mental health, with a 2010 study indicating that even a single breathing practice significantly reduces blood pressure.
- Try hypnotherapy for IBS: Hypnotherapy has been shown to calm irritated bowels and relieve IBS anxiety. Additionally, IBS hypnotherapy apps, like Nerva, can also be done on the move, which makes it a good option if you’re traveling this season.
- Find your bliss: Put your feet up, pour some lactose-free eggnog, and settle in with your favorite Christmas film. Do a little of whatever makes you feel festive and bright.
The Wrap Up
The holiday season may be ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, but that doesn’t mean it’s a breeze when you’re living with IBS. Digestion issues during the holidays can cause significant stress and difficulties. Some helpful tips for making your holidays gut-friendly include cutting out carbonated drinks, watching your portions, taking steps to eat mindfully, and planning ahead for any social events that revolve around food. Finally, take time to relax and enjoy yourself. Pop on your jammies, cozy up, and remember that IBS doesn’t mean you can't eat, drink, and be merry.