Understanding your guts at Christmas

3rd December 2021

Whatever festive season you celebrate, many of us can tend to ‘overindulge’. Many social aspects of festive celebrations revolve around food and drink, so we’ve put together a guide to understanding your guts this Christmas.

As we don’t like to talk about our guts, not many of us know what is ‘normal’ versus when it might be a good idea to speak with your GP about your symptoms. It’s important to know what is normal for you, and to keep an eye on any new symptoms.

From constipation and diarrhoea to heartburn and reflux, read on below for top tips to avoid unpleasant symptoms this Christmas:

Change in bowel habit

Normal stool function is opening the bowel between three times a day to three times a week, but it’s important to know what is normal for you. People can experience a change in bowel habit over the holiday season. This can mostly be down to lifestyle factors and is usually short term. However, if symptoms persist longer than 2-3 weeks, or any what are called red flag symptoms occur, such as weight loss, blood in poo or swallowing problems, them people should see their doctor.

Constipation:

People can experience short term constipation symptoms, and this can occur with a change in daily routine. Winter holidays can mean less activity and possibly lower fibre intake due to a short-term change in diet.

  • Try to keep more active. If weather permits, go for a walk during the holidays or take part in some indoor games that include some activity.
  • Continue to include fruit and vegetables and wholegrain starchy carbohydrates where you can in the food choices you have over the festive period. This can keep your fibre intake up and help to prevent constipation.
  • If you are not used to including these foods in your diet, then introduce them into your diet slowly, to allow your bowel to adjust to more fibre.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to help the fibre move through your bowel – at least 8 cups per day. If you have alcohol during the day you might need to include more.

Diarrhoea:

Diarrhoea experienced over the festive season could be caused by food poisoning.

You are more likely to get food poisoning at Christmas because people are cooking for more people than usual, and the fridge is often over ladened with food. If dishes are brought for a family event they may also be stored at the wrong temperature for too long. All this can mean that microbes can grow in the food, and this can cause food poisoning.

To avoid food poisoning follow food hygiene tips such as:

  • When transporting food, keep raw and cooked items in separate bags and if you are going to be a while then use cool bags or freezer boxes with icepacks to keep food cool.
  • Raw foods should be stored away from foods that are cooked in the fridge – ideally store raw foods below cooked food and cover all foods to avoid juices dripping from raw to cooked dishes.
  • Wash your hands before preparing food and in-between handling raw and cooked food and clean surfaces after preparing raw food.
  • Keep food cool – ideally fridges should be 5 degrees C or below, use a thermometer to check the temperature.
  • Use food within it’s use by date – the ‘use by’ date is about how hygienic the food is, and food should not be frozen, cooked or eaten after the date has passed.
  • Don’t overfill the fridge as it can be difficult to see what food is in the fridge – contamination and use of food over the use by date might be more likely.
  • Do not wash raw turkey or large pieces of raw meat, this can spray contamination on work surfaces.
  • If the turkey needs to be defrosted it should be done in the fridge and it can take a few days, so plan well ahead. Follow the instructions on the packaging on how to defrost and cook the turkey. Do not defrost it unevenly as this can mean it might not reach a temperature in the oven that kills the bacteria.
  • Do not fill the body cavity with stuffing as this can take longer to reach a safe temperature – cook the stuffing separately.

Food poisoning for most people is a self-limiting illness and usually resolves within a few days however if any of the following occur seek medical help:

  • If diarrhoea persists for more than 14 days.
  • If you notice blood in the diarrhoea.
  • If you develop a high fever.
  • If your cramping and abdominal pains become severe and constant.
  • If you suspect you or your child is dehydrated.

Wind & bloating

Wind and bloating are different symptoms and wind can occur without bloating. Bloating is described as an uncomfortable feeling of fullness or pressure and this can sometimes be accompanied by a widening of the girth, called distension.

Most people will feel uncomfortable if they have eaten above their fullness cues and consumed a particularly large meal and this would be a normal physiological response to overeating. Rich meals that have a high content of fat can also delay the emptying of the stomach, which can be another cause of bloating.

If bloating is persistent or associated with weight loss, abdominal pain, diarrhoea or appetite loss and increasing need to pee for women over 50 years, you should see your doctor as it could be a symptom of more serious condition.

Passing wind is a natural process and whether someone admits to it or not, we all do it. The first food that comes to mind when talking about the festive season is Brussel sprouts – they have a notorious reputation when it comes to wind!

There are other causes of increased wind. Swallowed air, carbonated drinks, chewing gum, smoking, and eating quickly can also introduce air into the gut.  People shouldn’t be too concerned about short term wind during the festive season if they have changed their lifestyle, unless they notice a more persistent change and other symptoms. These are diarrhoea, bloating, blood in poo, abdominal pain, or weight loss.

Some tips that might help to reduce wind and bloating:

  • Chew food well and take time overeating your meal this can reduce swallowed air.
  • Reduce the amount of fizzy drinks you have in mixers.
  • If you find that rich meals and beer and wine are making wind smellier perhaps choose an alternative drink to have instead and opt for smaller portion sizes.

Indigestion, heartburn & reflux

Most people will experience indigestion, which is a symptom, (also known as dyspepsia) and is a term used to describe unpleasant or even painful sensations at the top of the abdomen or in the lower part of the chest. This happens after eating a fatty or spicy meal or if a meal is eaten too quickly. It also can happen when we have had too much to eat, and this is often the case over the Christmas period. With average calories consumed increasing over the Christmas period, it would not be surprising that people can experience indigestion.

Heartburn and reflux are common with one in four people experiencing symptoms. Heartburn is a pain in the centre of the chest that occurs after eating, lying down, or bending over and is often described as ‘burning’. Acid reflux is the regurgitation of stomach contents, including acid, into the gullet.

Heartburn and reflux symptoms can also be experienced over the Christmas period. So here are some tips to consider that might be helpful to prevent some symptoms, aim for two or three that you feel might fit best into your lifestyle.

  • Include breakfast on Christmas day so you are less likely to feel hungry at lunchtime and are therefore less likely to want to overeat.
  • Chew your food well and take our time over meals. Allow gravity to help, this does mean sitting upright when eating, not slouching whilst eating in front of the afternoon Christmas blockbuster film.
  • Clothing that is looser is probably a better choice to wear.
  • It is probably a better option to avoid constant grazing through the day too – plan meals and snacks with breaks in between.
  • Another consideration might be to plan what days through the holiday period you are going to celebrate and indulge. If you have days of eating your usual diet in between celebration days, then this will also help. It also means that you are more likely to enjoy the celebration days and not worry about eating too much.
  • Leave three hours between your evening meal and going to bed.
  • Propping the head of the bed up with blocks or bricks can help reduce night time reflux.
  • Include a soft drink in between alcoholic drinks, this will reduce your overall alcohol intake and keep you hydrated.

There are antacids and medications that can be considered during this time to reduce short term symptoms of indigestion, heartburn and reflux, you can also ask a pharmacist about treatment. Don’t ignore these symptoms though if they continue. Do see your doctor if for 3 weeks or more, you experience:

  • Food getting stuck in your gullet, you are frequently being sick or have any unintentional weight loss.
  • Lifestyle changes and pharmacy medicines aren’t helping.
  • You have heartburn, indigestion, hiccups, or an unpleasant taste in your mouth most days.

If you found this information useful, please consider donating to Guts UK this Christmas. When you do, your kind donation will sit proudly at the bottom of our virtual Christmas tree. With new knowledge, we will end the pain and suffering for the millions affected by digestive diseases.

Together, we will get to grips with guts.

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