From Thanksgiving turkey to New Year’s champagne, the holidays are full of delicious indulgences, favorite foods, and a busy social life, which are all fun and games until the gut health issues and digestive drama kicks in. There’s a reason that “holiday belly” is a thing and our digestive symptoms either worsen or resurface when the season starts. Maybe you even expect a constant stomachache from now until January or stock up on digestive enzymes and anti-gas pills this time of year (if you ask me, the real Grinch is painful bloat and constipation).
The good news is that gut issues don’t have to be a given with the holiday season like the ugly sweater your mom will make you wear or the embarrassing cards she’ll send to relatives. Gut issues are typically due to specific problems and routine changes that come around this time of year, which means they are manageable. Because I’m personally over the digestive drama, I asked experts how to keep my gut health in check without giving up my favorite foods and traditions. Here’s what they said.
What makes gut health worse during the holidays?
Lack of routine
Turns out, your gut might not be as spontaneous as you are. Packed schedules, holiday travel, and a totally abnormal diet are all factors that can affect gut health. “The gut thrives in routine, especially when it comes to sleep, exercise, and meals,” explained Erin Judge, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist, gut health expert, and founder of Gutivate. “The holiday season throws off routines, thanks to travel, busy schedules, and shorter days. This can confuse the gut and lead to digestive symptoms, especially changes in bowel motility.” Just like your sleep cycle and menstruation cycle, your gut works best when it’s on a cycle too. When you’re eating at unfamiliar times (like late at night) or your body is going through general routine changes (like changing time zones), your gut might be affected.
“When we’re changing time zones or even just out of normal routine, our internal rhythms are disrupted, often causing the metabolism to be less effective,” agreed William Siff, a licensed acupuncturist, clinical herbalist, ethnobotanist, and health educator who founded Goldthread Tonics. “Weaker digestive fire leads to slower digestion, which will cause gas, bloating, inflammation, and more.” It’s not just about what you eat during the holidays that wrecks havoc on your gut (but more on that below)—lack of consistency in all areas of your life can lead to weakened digestion and a confused gut.
If you think your packed schedule, growing shopping lists, and family turmoil only affects your sanity, think again. Stress levels are a huge factor in gut health because the gut and brain are connected (via the gut-brain axis). “The gut and the brain communicate, so stress can cause us to clench muscle groups and hold tension in our abdomen, which can affect digestion,” explained Willow Jarosh, MS, RD, a dietician nutritionist and expert for Health-Ade. “Stress can also lead to changes in movement in the gut, and stress-related gut symptoms can vary (like constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, cramping, etc.).”
“The stress of the holiday season can increase cortisol levels, which sends the body into the sympathetic nervous system state,” Judge agreed. “During this state, the digestive system also goes into a state of stress, which can lead to changes in bowel motility and bloating.” Stress can affect gut symptoms by changing the chemical messages passed along on the gut-brain axis and also because we often hold tension in our abdominal muscles, which tenses the gut, causing cramping, gas, constipation, or irregular bowel movements. “Tension forms in the gut area when we’re feeling stressed, and these tight muscles in our diaphragm make digestion harder,” Siff explained. Bottom line: Stress is not just something you know you should improve eventually—it deserves to be the #1 priority when taking care of your health.
No surprise here: Those sugar cookies, spoonfuls of gravy, and glasses of holiday punch are not your gut’s BFFs. “Holiday foods are higher in sugar and fats that slow down the gut due to malabsorption and are lower in fiber that helps regulate the gut and improve the health of gut microbes, leading to bloating and discomfort,” Judge explained. Your favorite holiday foods from a cup of eggnog to cornbread casserole are often less nutritious because of the high sugar content (who can say “no” to gingerbread?) and contain less fiber, which is an essential nutrient to keep the gut healthy and keep you regular.
So while our holiday diets typically have less fiber that feeds the good bacteria, the increased amount of sugar is feeding the bad bacteria. “We likely eat more sugar this time of year, which can imbalance the gut microbiome and allow the bad bacteria to grow,” Siff said. However, the answer is not to avoid all of your favorite foods for fear of a gut flare-up. In the end, a rich meal or a sugary cookie here and there is not going to majorly affect your gut (and the body is meant to detox all on its own), but changing your diet and eating less crucial nutrients over a period of time can cause uncomfortable gut symptoms.
How to keep your gut healthy during the holidays:
Stay consistent whenever you can
Yes, routine is crucial, but our routines don’t have to be perfect to be beneficial. You don’t need to leave a holiday party early if you’re having fun just to keep your regular bedtime, and you shouldn’t forego traveling to keep your gut in check. This also doesn’t mean you have to fit in a 60-minute workout every single day or bring a container of your go-to meal to a holiday dinner, all in the name of “consistency.” Instead, be consistent where you can, whether it’s having the same morning routine (no matter where you are or what time it starts), getting seven to nine hours of sleep (even if that means 1 a.m. to 8 a.m. instead of your usual 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.), and fitting in movement (whether its a 60-minute workout or a walk around the block with your mom).
Judge recommended eating meals throughout the day, getting enough hours of sleep every night, and fitting in movement, because any amount of consistency helps keep your gut stay happy. But consistency doesn’t have to mean doing the same thing every day—it can simply mean taking time to check in with your body. “Try to carve out time each day to do something that helps you connect to your body, whether that’s a meditation or a walk without your phone,” Jarosh recommended. “Try to keep sleep consistent, hydrate throughout the day, don’t start a diet or try to skip meals in preparation for holiday meals, and practice strategies to avoid diet-related talk or feel the need to detox (that can cause stress on both the mind and body).”
Prioritize stress relief
“Health, especially in the gut, always begins with the mind because our core area is extremely sensitive and actually has more nerves than anywhere besides the spine,” Siff explained. In other words, staying positive and seeking joy (including joy with food!) is not only good for your experience but also good for your gut. Judge recommended prioritizing habits that can help your body move into the parasympathetic nervous system state, or “rest and digest.” “This can be done through diaphragmatic breathing, mindfulness exercises, meditation, and adequate sleep. Starting your meals with breathing and mindfulness can also help you digest your food better and have less discomfort,” she said.
In general, doing whatever you can to keep stress levels down can have a huge effect on your gut, digestion, and symptoms. So when you’re about to go ham (pun intended) on a huge holiday feast? You know what to do: Take some deep breaths, eat mindfully, and enjoy every bite without one bit of shame, guilt, or regret.
Start strong in the morning
Have you ever skipped meals or ate light snacks throughout the day, knowing you were going to a big holiday party at night and thought it was best to save room or calories? Yeah, same. In reality, the body does not work that way. If you go into a holiday buffet or extravagant dinner without properly nourishing your body throughout the day, you’ll be more likely to mindlessly binge, eat past the point of fullness, and not make mindful decisions of what you would really enjoy or what would nourish the body.
Most importantly, breakfast is an essential chance to get in crucial nutrients that will help the gut stay healthy, even with added sugars and lack of fiber in other meals later in the day. “Starting every day with a breakfast rich in fiber is a guaranteed way to improve your gut health because prebiotic fiber is the fuel for probiotics and can help keep your gut healthy,” suggested Kara Landau, RD, a gut health expert and founder of Uplift Food. No matter what your holiday plans entail later, start the day off strong with a smoothie full of fruits and veggies, add leafy greens and onions to an omelet, or eat a side of fiber-rich fruits like berries to get in some added good-for-the-gut nutrients.
Be mindful about meals
Good news: Every expert I talked to agreed that you do not need to give up your favorite foods and that stress over food is worse for the gut than any cup of eggnog or slice of pumpkin pie could ever be. If you eat a diet rich in whole foods and nutritious fruits and veggies most of the year, a buttery dinner roll, plate of creamy Alfredo, or a few too many glasses of punch at the office party won’t make any difference. Instead of restricting, just be mindful. Your plate can (and should!) contain both the foods you love and the nutrients you know are going to make your body feel good.
“The holiday season is a time for treats and indulgences, but your diet can still include gut-friendly nutrients,” suggested Sofia Popov, MSc, BSc, a microbiome scientist and founder of GUTXY. “Eating fiber helps your gut bacteria make short-chain fatty acids, which give your gut energy and keep digestion running smoothly.” Bottom line: Enjoy your favorite foods, but don’t skimp on the Brussels sprouts, salad, and pomegranate seeds—your plate and your gut have room for it all.