Christmas is a time for celebration, and particularly in western society, celebrating involves indulging in rich foods, alcohol, and sugar. This is a natural response and stems back to times when we had to binge before the long winter months to store energy. As we are living through lockdowns and restrictions, it is tempting to fill the void in socialisation with comforting, rich foods. However, these festive treats can put a strain on the digestive system, and so this festive season is a good time to give your gut a little TLC.
The digestive system takes the brunt of everything that we put into our body. Overindulgence can lead to symptoms such as reflux, indigestion, bloating and constipation, indicating that it can directly affect the function of the digestive system. It is therefore a good idea to give the gut a little support at this time of year.
Disturbances to the digestive system
A high volume of food, especially if high in fat, can sit in the stomach for a longer period, triggering symptoms such as bloating, indigestion and heartburn. This is often due to excess food intake, which stretches the stomach. It also puts pressure on the lower oesophageal sphincter, the muscle ring that keeps stomach acid from going in the wrong direction. High-fat foods stay in your stomach for longer, increasing stomach acidity, and irritating your digestive system. However, even though excess acid is causing the symptoms, when stomach acid is low, food to stays in the stomach for a longer period, increasing the likelihood of acid reflux and other digestive discomfort.1
Upper digestive tract symptoms can be ameliorated by:
- Eating smaller portions, taking a break between courses, and ensuring you are well hydrated before eating
- Using a digestive enzyme complex with betaine HCl to support digestive enzyme function, as well as supporting stomach acid function
- Consuming peppermint tea after a meal to soothe the digestive system and aid digestion
- Taking inner leaf aloe vera juice to help reduce irritation to digestive lining
- Taking a good quality probiotic containing lactobacillus and bifidobacterium Research has shown that supplementation with probiotics may improve GI symptoms in patients with functional dyspepsia2
Alcohol, and foods that may trigger inflammation (anything someone may be intolerant to – commonly dairy and gluten) can lead to damage of the integrity of the digestive lining and contribute to leaky gut. Leaky is a condition in which the structural integrity of the gut barrier becomes compromised, allowing undigested food particles, large proteins, and other molecules, to escape from the gut into the blood.3
Over a short period of time, leaky gut can lead to localised inflammation and individuals can experience IBS type symptoms including bloating, flatulence, and constipation. However, the entry of undesirable and incompatible substances from the gut into the bloodstream (i.e., antigens) causes the immune system to launch an inflammatory response. If leaky gut persists it may therefore become a chronic problem. Chronic inflammation, resulting from leaky gut, can play a role in many chronic health conditions (as inflammation is a significant contributor to most disease conditions).3
During the festive period it is therefore useful to support the integrity of the digestive lining to help protect against the ill-effects of over-indulgence. Interventions for supporting the gut lining include:
- Vitamin A – there is an inverse relationship between serum retinol levels and gut permeability. Retinoic Acid (vitamin A) regulates the expression of TJ genes in epithelial cells. It also supports acetate (SCFA) production by gut bacteria, providing fuel for enterocytes and inducing IgA production4,5
- Vitamin D – has been shown to reduce the permeability of gastrointestinal cells, modulate immune function and regulate GI inflammation6
- Apple pectin – preserves gut barrier function, alleviates metabolic endotoxemia and reduces local inflammation7
- Lactoferrin – influences IgA and IgG production, increases the expression of tight junction proteins, and protects the intestinal epithelial barrier function8,9
- Slippery Elm – possesses soothing and anti-inflammatory properties for the digestive tract
- Marshmallow root – has mucilage properties to reduce inflammation, protect digestive lining and aid repair
- Probiotics – it is important to support the microbiome within the digestive system, as the microflora are essential for fermenting fibre to produce SCFA. These help to preserve the integrity of enterocytes that line the gut by acting as a fuel10,11 Probiotics enhance barrier function by inducing synthesis and assembly of tight junction proteins and can help prevent disruption of tight junctions by injurious factors12
- Curcumin, omega 3 fatty acids and Aloe Vera – anti-inflammatory nutrients
The human gut is home to approximately 100 trillion microorganisms, collectively referred to as the gut microbiota. Within the digestive tract, gut microbes promote peristalsis (the movement of food through the intestines), protect against infection, produce vitamins, and maintain a healthy gastrointestinal mucus layer – therefore having a profound impact on health.
Outside the digestive tract, gut microbes influence other organs and tissues through neural networks and signalling molecules. Through these complex communication networks, gut microbes regulate 70 to 80% of the immune system, and therefore play a central role in immune system homeostasis.
Rich, high fat diets, especially in combination with low fibre and high refined carbohydrate intake, as well as alcohol, are associated with disturbances to the gut microflora. They have been shown to reduce bacterial diversity, as well as reducing the ratio of Bacteroides to Firmicutes, an imbalance associated with increased risk of obesity. Study results suggest that short-term high fat diet withdrawal can restore metabolic changes and prevent excess body weight gain. However, long-term dietary intervention may be required to optimize the restoration of gut microbiota. If the dietary intake is transient it can be quickly corrected, however, it is important to support the microbiome as much as possible as longer-term disturbance to the gut flora is associated with many chronic health conditions.13-15
Consider supporting a healthy bowel flora by:
- Consuming fermented foods such as kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and miso
- Consuming prebiotic (fuel for gut bacteria) foods and polyphenols from chicory, olives, baked apples, and Jerusalem artichoke
- Taking a live bacteria supplement containing Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains and/or Saccharomyces boulardii (probiotic yeast). Pathogenic bacteria can thrive on the types of food and drinks we typically consume over the holidays. Taking a probiotic can also help to prepare the gut for the damage that may occur throughout the festive season and continue to benefit the gut long after
Don’t forget the kids! – we all know that Christmas for children is usually accompanied by high amounts of sugar and fat. It is equally important however, that your children get their dose of friendly bacteria too. Getting your little ones to eat probiotic rich foods may be challenging though, as sauerkraut and kefir are not typically a favourite for children, particularly at Christmas. Furthermore, fermented foods can be high in salt and therefore unsuitable. Probiotic supplementation is a great way therefore to support their health over the festive period, and longer term.
Giving the gut a bit of TLC during and after the festive period can help to reduce that guilty feeling in January, as well as ameliorating potential long term dysfunction.
Other ways to reduce the impact of Christmas on the gut is to:
- Load up on vegetables – there is an abundance of great veg at this time of year, especially for Christmas dinner. Opt for at least half of the plate containing non-starchy veg, so you can fill up on these and reduce the less fibrous foods
- Stay hydrated – switch to a glass of water between alcoholic drinks to maintain hydration and reduce alcohol intake
- Stay active – engage in family walks, bike rides or even some active party games!
- Go dark – dark chocolate is high in antioxidants and lower in sugar than milk or white
- Try some kombucha instead of sparkling wine, it still has a fizzy, dry flavour but is great for feeding your gut bacteria
Also remember to take time out to relax and enjoy time with your love ones, have a great Christmas and we hope 2021 brings a better year!
- Indulgent food (high fat, sugar, and alcohol in particular) contributes to gut disturbances including leaky gut, dyspepsia, and microflora imbalances. If these are not ameliorated, they can contribute to longer term issues
- Digestive enzymes can be useful during the Christmas period as they may help support digestion within the upper gut by providing enzymes to support macronutrient breakdown. Betaine HCl can also be useful to support stomach acid production. (NB; betaine HCl is not recommended for those with stomach or other ulcers and some other inflammatory diseases of the GI tract. Please read the label before taking this product)
- Nutrients such as vitamin A, D, lactoferrin, marshmallow root and slippery elm can be useful for supporting the integrity of the digestive lining, which can be affected by alcohol and proinflammatory foods
- Supporting the microbiome with a live bacteria supplement, fermented foods and prebiotics is important for ameliorating changes to the microbiome induced by indulgence of rich foods
If you have questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters, please do contact me (Helen) by phone or email at any time.
Amanda Williams and the Cytoplan Editorial Team
References can be supplied upon request.