The holiday season is one of the most joyful times of year - spirited with holiday gatherings, time with friends and loved ones, and family traditions. However, many of us find that the holidays also bring high levels of stress, over-indulgence in rich foods, and even a few unwanted health effects (like weight gain). All of this can unfortunately wreak havoc on our gut health– a gift we definitely did not have on our list!
The good news is that we can still enjoy the holidays while remaining mindful of the ways that we can support our bodies so that we can experience all of the fun and excitement during this time of year. Here are the three ways that the holidays can be messing with our gut health and what to do instead.
1. Too Much Sugar
The holiday season brings with it lots of sweets and is one of the most over-indulgent times of year. This is one of the well-known ways that our health is affected during this time of year, as we are surrounded by holiday treats, office parties, cookie baking parties, and other food-focused events. But what does this have to do with your gut health?
When we consume high amounts of sugar, it can feed some of the harmful bacteria in our gut resulting in what we often refer to as dysbiosis. Dysbiosis means that there's an unhealthy balance of "good" (also known as our probiotic bacteria) and "bad" bacteria in our gut, or a lack of microbial diversity. Dysbiosis can be the reason why your digestion feels off, your energy levels are in the tubes, or even why you experience breakouts during this time of year from taking in too much sugar.
This is not to say that you can't enjoy your favorite holiday cookies, but being mindful of our total sugar and carb intake can pay off in the end (remember, carbohydrates also break down to sugar in the body).Since harmful bacteria often thrive on high amounts of sugar in the diet, imbalances in the gut microbiome can lead to cravings for more sugar and carbohydrates. While we often blame it on a lack of willpower to say no to these foods, it can actually be a self-perpetuating cycle with the microbes in our gut.
Solution: Try Probiotics
By taking a high-quality probiotic, we can help strengthen the balance of that good bacteria in our gut. Not only can this help ward off excess sugar cravings, the right probiotic blend can help support our immune system function, improve our mood, support lung function, improve our digestion, and more. This is an easy way to help balance your gut during this high-sugar season, and also makes a great gift for a loved one!
2. Too Much Alcohol
Holiday parties and family gatherings often bring with them many celebratory cheers, holiday themed cocktails, and possibly more groggy mornings than we would like. Alcohol is not only a mood depressant but can have deleterious effects on our gut health and microbiome. Alcohol disrupts the balance of healthy bacteria in the gut, similarly to sugar. It also can create high levels of inflammation in our digestive system, making it more difficult to break down our food, absorb our nutrients, and can lead to long-term damage to our gut health.
In addition to the negative effects of alcohol itself, it's often paired with high-sugar juices or in the form of wine and beer that also contribute to your daily dose of sugar and carbohydrates. Many clients that I've worked with have found that by focusing on the benefit of waking up the next day sans hangover, along with having an alternative beverage to sip on helps to make it easier to say no.
Solution: Try a Holiday Mocktail
Mocktails are a great way to celebrate, sans alcohol. If you're hosting or attending a gathering, whip up a holiday themed mocktail, which can be consumed without alcohol or can be "spiked" as guests would like. By having a tasty non-alcoholic option, you'll find it easier to say no to an alcoholic option and you might find that others are interested in it as well!
Plus, you can create a drink with benefits -- like a turmeric and ginger tonic that actually has gut supportive benefits that can reduce inflammation and support digestion. Grate fresh ginger and turmeric root over ice and mix with fresh grapefruit juice, sparkling water, and a touch of honey. Delicious for you and your gut!
3. Too Much Stress
This time of year is notorious for bringing us high levels of stress. Not only is our schedule packed with holiday parties, shopping, decorating, etc, but the end of the year can often be a high-stress time in many of our working environments. Finalizing end of year projects coupled with less time at our desks can make this season especially demanding.
Stress has many negative effects in our body-- from draining our energy, to causing imbalances in our hormones, to digestion that has gone awry. In addition, both acute and long-term stress can impact the diversity of our gut microbiome and trigger changes in gut health , including affecting the lining of our gut (also known as "leaky gut"). Therefore, stress management is an important part of the puzzle for gut health.
Solution: Find time for Mindfulness
While it can feel like another thing to add to your "to do" list, taking time for mindfulness activities - like meditation, deep breathing, and even just taking a walk outdoors - can actually help us feel more productive, clear-headed, and can help us cope better with stressors. Start with just 10 minutes per day, any time of day that works for you, to focus on clearing your mind and resetting.
About the Author
Dr. Brooke Scheller, DCN, CNS, is a Doctor of Clinical Nutrition, Board Certified Nutrition Specialist, and expert in functional nutrition and personalized health. She specializes in gut health, mental health, and nutrition for reducing alcohol intake. Learn more at brookescheller.com or follow Dr. Brooke on instagram.