The Battle of the Bloat

For many people, rich and decadent foods are a hallmark of holiday celebrations—and while we all know that egg nog and cookies are not health food, a holiday treat here and there is not the end of the world. But eating too much heavy fare can wreak havoc on the digestive system, especially in women.

Digestive problems such as constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, and gas occur more frequently in women than in men and may be made worse by changes in hormone levels caused by menstruation and pregnancy. Women are also more likely to develop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common digestive disorder marked by persistent abdominal pain and bowel changes. IBS sufferers may have a strong digestive reaction to stress, large meals, caffeine, dairy products, and large amounts of alcohol—typical staples of the holiday season.

Look out for these common problems:

Too many large meals and not enough fiber can lead to constipation. Symptoms may include having fewer than three bowel movements a week, firm or hard-to-pass stools, abdominal swelling or bloating, straining during bowel movements, and a full feeling after a bowel movement. The Fix: Eat at least 25 grams of fiber each day, drink plenty of fluids, exercise, and use the bathroom when you have the urge. Your doctor may also prescribe laxatives or other therapies.

A case of diarrhea—defined as having three or more loose bowel movements in a day—may develop after eating or drinking foods that contain harmful viruses or bacteria. Dairy products, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, certain additives, or medications such as antibiotics can also be a cause. The Fix: Eat hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Skip foods that have been sitting out too long. Drink fluids to keep hydrated, and if diarrhea lasts more than a few hours, drink liquids that contain salt, such as sports drinks or broth. Avoid drinks that include dairy products, caffeine, or sugar, which can make diarrhea worse.

Heartburn—a burning feeling in your chest and throat—can be caused by rich, fatty, or acidic foods; chocolate; coffee; alcohol; mints; and big meals. The Fix: Avoid overeating. Instead of lying down after a meal, try taking a walk.

Gas and bloating can be triggered by hard-to-digest foods, such as beans, broccoli, cabbage, and dairy products (for lactose-intolerant people). The Fix: Pay attention to which foods give you gas and avoid them. An over-the-counter treatment may also help.

It’s OK to enjoy your favorite holiday treats in moderation, just remember to eat a healthy, fiber-rich diet at non-party times. However, if you’ve experienced digestive discomfort or symptoms for at least 12 weeks out of the last 12 months, talk to your doctor. It may be a sign of IBS or a more serious condition, such as colon cancer.

A Turn of the Stomach

We heard exciting news out of the UK this week: Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton are expecting their first child. But the excitement was tempered with concern when reports of the Middleton’s pregnancy-related hospitalization surfaced. She’s reportedly suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe form of morning sickness that affects up to 2% of pregnant women.

“Morning sickness” refers to the nausea and vomiting of pregnancy. The phrase is misleading because it’s not confined to the morning—as many pregnant women can attest—but the condition is common in early pregnancy, affecting roughly 70%–85% of pregnant women. Symptoms usually strike without warning and can range from mild, occasional nausea, to severe, continuous nausea with bouts of vomiting. Some women may become nauseated by the smell of certain foods or get sick after eating.

Morning sickness typically begins within the first nine weeks of pregnancy, with symptoms often improving by week 14. What causes morning sickness is unknown, but the surge of pregnancy hormones is a likely factor. Though morning sickness can weaken a pregnant woman’s quality of life, most mild to moderate cases will not harm you or your baby’s health.

More serious problems can arise in women who can’t keep any food or liquids down and begin to lose weight, as is the case with hyperemesis gravidarum. Women who cannot tolerate liquids without vomiting and show signs of dehydration may need to be given intravenous fluids and nutrients in the hospital. The risk of developing hyperemesis gravidarum may be higher if you are carrying multiple fetuses, have a mother or sister who had the condition, are carrying a female fetus, have a history of hyperemesis gravidarum in a previous pregnancy, or have a history of motion sickness or migraines.

Many women assume that morning sickness is a pregnancy rite of passage and avoid telling their doctor about their symptoms or downplay how bad they feel. This is not the time to grin and bear it. Symptoms can get worse over time and it’s often harder to treat morning sickness once it becomes severe. If you can’t keep any food or fluid down for more than a day or are becoming dehydrated, contact your ob-gyn right away.

If you have mild morning sickness, these tips may help:

  • Try vitamin B6 supplements
  • Eat crackers before getting out of bed
  • Drink beverages made from real ginger such as tea or ginger ale
  • Consume smaller nutritious, high-protein meals and snacks throughout the day
  • Get enough rest
  • Avoid foods and smells that make you feel sick.

For more severe cases, anti-nausea medications or a short hospital stay may be necessary.

Learn more.