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.