For many, the holiday season signals an excuse to overindulge. From Thanksgiving through the New Year, people partake of abundant, heavy foods and desserts while often ignoring what their bodies really need. In fact, overtaxing the digestive system will most likely lead to stomachaches and gastrointestinal problems, including bloating and flatulence, indigestion and heartburn, even headaches and irritability. The simplest solution to the challenges of holiday feasting is, of course, eating and drinking in moderation; but beyond this, making a few simple choices can give your body a little help during this season of gastronomic temptation.
At The Table
Mindful eating is the place to start. If we remain aware of our choices during mealtimes, we will stop eating when our stomachs become full. While this may sound obvious, that painful, engorged feeling we all know so well occurs when we forget to pay attention to what the body is saying.
Remember that fresh foods are, naturally, best for digestion. Fruits and vegetables that have not been heavily processed contain natural fiber, which plays a crucial role in proper digestion and elimination, and is also linked to the prevention of heart disease and colon cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends at least 25 grams of fiber in the daily diet, but most Americans only get about half that. When dining, opt for high-fiber foods (whole-grain breads, fresh fruits) rather than processed products (white dinner rolls, canned cranberry sauce). If you're still concerned your diet is lacking in fiber, consider a supplement, and always drink lots of water.
And start out right: According to the ancient health system of Ayurveda, eating a pinch of fresh ginger, a pinch of salt, and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice at the beginning of a meal will improve digestive fire (called Agni) and stimulate digestive juices. Also, if you don't begin your meal with a salad of raw, organic vegetables or fruits, consider ending your meal with one. Unlike cooked veggies and fruits, raw foods retain their nutrients and digestive enzymes. Leave the fiber-rich skins intact, which will further contribute to proper digestion.
Beyond mindful eating and healthy food choices, there are a number of herbs to aid and soothe digestion. One of the best and most-revered remedies is peppermint (Mentha piperita). The ancient Egyptians, who cultivated peppermint, knew of its many uses including its value as a digestive aid. The British Empire popularized a peppermint oil-based medicine for stomachaches and cramps associated with bloating. Today, the legacy lives on: Pleasant-tasting peppermint tea is often the chosen aperitif to soothe indigestion. Peppermint combined with ginger (Zingiber officinale)—also known for quelling an upset stomach—in a hot tea or warm apple juice often yields excellent results before, during or after a meal.
If discomfort persists long after your meal, try chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) tea. This mild sedative can alleviate serious stomachaches and cramps. For excessive gas, fennel—raw seeds or tea—is a popular and effective remedy.
Friendly intestinal bacteria, primarily acidophilus (Lactobacillus acidophilus) and bifidobacterium (Bifidobacterium bifidum), live in the intestines and play an important role in digestion by keeping bacteria balanced and in check. Inadequate probiotic levels are common, which causes inefficient nutrient processing and slowed digestion. Low probiotic levels can lead to compromised immunity and candida (Candida albicans) overgrowth, the cause of yeast infections. To increase your beneficial bacteria levels, include fresh, active-culture yogurt in your holiday menu. Note, however, that if yogurt is more than a day or two old, the good bacteria become ineffective before reaching the intestines. For this reason, acidophilus-bifidobacterium supplementation may be a helpful component to your daily diet.
The enzymes found in raw fruits and vegetables set the digestive process in motion. Also available in capsule form, look for brands that have all of the essential enzymes, including protease for protein digestion, lipase for fat metabolism, amylase for starches and other carbohydrate processing, lactase for milk sugar breakdown, and alpha-galactosidase to ease flatulence.
A daily vitamin regimen is another powerful ally in the digestive process. Consider stomach-soothing vitamin E and B-complex vitamins, which are essential in maintaining proper muscle and nerve function in the digestive tract. Vitamin B-12 is especially important, serving as a key catalyst in the breakdown of proteins and fats in the small intestine. If overeating has led to cramps, it may be beneficial to supplement with calcium, which is essential for muscle relaxation.
Getting your whole body into the act does more than burn extra calories. A regular program of aerobic and weight-bearing exercise stimulates all of the body's metabolic functions, including digestion. Most experts recommend at least 30 minutes of heart-pumping activity three times per week. To gain benefits on a feast day, take a moderately vigorous walk of at least 15 minutes in the morning, before the heavy eating has begun, to awaken the digestive system. An easy walk after meals is also beneficial, but it's best to leave the heavier workouts until after your meal has settled.
Research also indicates that the regular practice of hatha yoga helps keep the digestive system functioning at peak efficiency (see "Yoga for Digestion"). Ideally, yoga should be practiced on an empty stomach, because performing poses right after a meal can add to discomfort rather than relieve it.
If you do succumb to temptation and overdo it at a meal, take a lesson from Ayurveda: Lie on your left side for five to 15 minutes, then go for a brisk, five- to 15-minute walk. Lying on the left side allows food to pass more easily from the stomach into the small intestine, while walking increases metabolism. Thirty minutes before bedtime, take a relaxed, 10-minute walk to settle the body's systems and clear the mind. It's important to keep this activity very light, as raising the heart rate too much can make it difficult to fall asleep.
This is a season of goodwill, for body and spirit. Check your attitude before any holiday celebration; if you believe that you are going to be uncomfortable and unhappy after your holiday meal, you probably will. However, with a few simple lifestyle and diet strategies, you have a good chance of reaching the end of the season satisfied and happy.
Rohini Grace has a master's degree in writing from the Maharishi University School of Management.