If you were to brainstorm a list of things that come to mind when you hear the word “holidays,” you’d basically be creating a recipe for digestive health woes: Travel, big meals, sweet treats, celebratory cocktails, stress, lack of sleep, too little time to exercise—they all play a role in top GI complaints, including nausea, heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea, and constipation.
Avoiding it all is practically impossible, and besides, we’d never suggest foregoing all the fun. So how to protect your gut health while you enjoy the festivities? A good rule of thumb is “everything in moderation,” but there are also some effective tools and habits you can have at the ready when you’ve had one late night or pumpkin spice latte too many. Here, nine science-backed things to try for a happy, healthy gut this season.
A spice typically associated with Indian cuisine, cardamom supports good digestion by promoting healthy motility. In other words, it helps keep food moving through your system at a healthy pace—not too fast (diarrhea) or too slow (constipation). Cardamom goes well with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, so it’s a nice addition to seasonal recipes like spice cakes, apple or pear tarts, hot cider, and even apple pie. But if foods like these got you into tummy trouble in the first place, try supplementing with 125 mg of cardamom at each meal to promote calm in the stomach and intestines.
2. Digestive Enzymes
Struggle with heartburn, gas, and bloating? Before you stock up on antacids, consider digestive enzymes instead. Antacids reduce acid in the stomach, making it harder for the body to break down proteins and thus worsening digestive issues, explains Dr. Bill Rawls, medical director of Vital Plan. But digestive enzymes include the entire spectrum of enzymes for better food digestion. He recommends looking for a supplement that contains a full spectrum of plant-based enzymes for optimal digestion and nutrient absorption.
This freshwater algae is a digestive powerhouse. “Taking it consistently does wonders for soothing an irritated stomach and supporting digestive function,” says Dr. Rawls. Research also suggests it has detoxifying powers: Chlorella has been shown to help lower levels of dioxin, an environmental pollutant and hormone disruptor found in food (primarily meat and dairy products). The typical maintenance serving is 5 to 7.5g total a day. For additional support, we suggest 10g total a day. Chlorella can be taken any time of day. For best results, take with food.
This spicy root may be one of the best-studied natural remedies for easing nausea, and it’s shown time and again to help relieve queasiness and fend off vomiting. Some research suggests it might help with motion sickness, too—good to know before you start packing for that trip over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house. Try it fresh (sushi night!), or steep grated ginger in hot water, strain, and add a squeeze of lemon or a little honey for a soothing tea.
5. Peppermint Oil
This potent oil is a great go-to for several digestive woes. It aids digestion by improving the flow of bile, which the body uses to digest fats, so food passes through your stomach more quickly. It decreases uncomfortable spasms and cramping in the small intestines. It reduces bloating and flatulence by relaxing the muscles that allow painful digestive gas to pass. And several studies have shown that peppermint oil can help ease symptoms of IBS, including pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Take it in enteric-coated capsule form, especially if you suffer from Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), otherwise it may cause burning in the esophagus, says Dr. Rawls.
6. Apple Cider Vinegar
This one’s a classic home remedy, and for good reason: Sipping a little apple cider vinegar is an easy way to increase acidity in the stomach and improve digestion, says Dr. Rawls. It’s also known to help control abnormal blood sugar. Dr. Rawls advises mixing 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar with 6 ounces of water and a drizzle of honey and enjoying it with each meal.
7. Stress Less
The holidays should be a totally joyful time, and yet the angst that comes with traveling, navigating crowded holiday marts, spending excessively on gifts…let’s just say the stress can really add up. And unfortunately, chronic stress can really do a number on the gut. It adversely affects serotonin production, which slows the movement of food out of the stomach and through the intestinal tract. That gives food materials time to stagnate and sour, enhancing their erosive properties. The result: acid reflux, heartburn, and chronic stomach discomfort.
Your best solution is being proactive about managing your stress levels, says Dr. Rawls. A few of his favorite tips:
- Take yourself out of stressful situations, whenever possible. Sometimes, it’s truly as easy as saying “No, thank you” or politely excusing yourself—no explanations necessary.
- Try a deep breathing exercise to restore calm.
- Be selective about worry. Most of the time, we worry because we’re used to worrying: it’s a habit as opposed to a conscious choice. But won’t change an outcome, so the next time it starts to creep in, think of all those times it didn’t help, and let it go.
8. Sleep More
People with disrupted sleep are more likely to complain about fatigue, of course, but also diarrhea, stomach upset, and other aches and pains. One example: Nurses who work rotating shifts (days and nights) are at higher risk for developing IBS than those working regular day shifts, according to findings in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. To ensure a good night’s rest, practice good sleep hygiene—for instance, be sure to limit light exposure before bed, avoid stimulants like caffeine, and create a cool and comfortable sleeping environment. And consider trying some herbs known to help promote restful sleep, such as Motherwort, Passion Flower, and Bacopa.
9. Keep Moving
Getting regular exercise has been shown to help fend off bloating and constipation in healthy adults, and a few studies suggest it can help improve symptoms in those with IBS and chronic constipation. It works by improving motility and easing stress, and best of all, it doesn’t require a hardcore workout—walking was shown to be particularly beneficial in easing digestive issues. Another activity to try when you’re feeling backed up: Yoga. Forward folds, twisting poses, and Happy Baby Pose can all help move things along.
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