Let's face it, the holiday season is nothing short of a disaster for our digestion. It's a perfect storm of overindulgence, unfavorable food combinations and stressful environments that can send our carefully calibrated systems into mayhem. Heartburn, gas and bloating, loose stools, constipation or worse can be the result, getting in the way of our ability to enjoy what should be a time to celebrate and unwind.
While many of the problematic factors of the holiday situation can't be changed, there is still plenty we can do to bolster our systems and prevent the descent into the digestive blues. Follow the tips below to ensure your digestion remains happy and healthy as we enter into the upcoming winter festivities.
You probably know instinctively that stress has a negative impact on our digestive tracts. When we get stressed, our sympathetic nervous systems (think fight or flight) take over, diverting blood away from our digestive organs to our skeletal muscles. The result is that digestion can all but shut down.
While eliminating stress from the holidays is probably just as doable as learning to levitate objects with your mind, you can improve the way you cope with that stress. One of the best strategies is incorporating a relaxation technique into your daily routine — it could be anything from deep breathing, guided meditation or spending a little time out in nature to decompress. Just a few deep breaths or a moment outdoors can do wonders in stopping that stress response in its tracks and calming us down.
This is also a great time to enlist the help of a good herbal adaptogen (herbs that regulate our body's stress response and improve our ability to handle stress); in particular, use those that also calm the nervous system like Ashwagandha or Holy Basil. You might also think about adding a nervine into your routine (an herb that tonifies and calms the nervous system) like lavender, Milky Oats or Skullcap. These take time to bring us into harmony, however, so the sooner you start the better.
It's well documented that the bitter flavor stimulates digestion — increasing salivation and all digestive secretions, stimulating peristalsis and generally getting things fired up. You might consider sneaking in a few bitter tasting vegetables into your meal — raddichio, chicory or Dandelion greens are all good candidates — or you could take a few drops of a bitter tasting herb before eating. Some of the most common include gentian, artichoke leaf, Dandelion, Burdock, Yellow Dock or hops. If you want to get creative, you can even make your own bitters aperitif to sip on before eating. Some bitters, like Motherwort or vervain, also calm the nervous system — so if you're prone to nervous indigestion, you might consider choosing these.
No matter how many times I've tried to remind myself that my stomach is never as hungry as my eyes, I inevitably end up filling my Thanksgiving plate with an entire day's worth of calories (I do this at potlucks and buffets, too). I've tried compensating for this by skipping out on the other meals of the day, but this usually backfires horribly; it means I show up to the meal with a raging appetite and impaired digestion (and probably out of whack blood sugar as well). No, the best way forward is moderation; take less than what you want, and if you find yourself still hungry, go for a second helping. In fact, instead of an all you-can-eat smorgasbord, you might try doing your holiday meal in courses; this naturally makes for a slower, more relaxed pace at the table that prevents over-eating.
Similarly, make sure you eat slowly and chew your food well — it's easy to get distracted at the table and shovel things down like there's no tomorrow. But by taking your time, you'll give the food a chance to hit your stomach and be more in tune with your body's natural signals of satiation.
This advice can be taken in a more general way as well; instead of fitting in all your cooking into those few frantic hours before family members start arriving, why not make some things ahead? You might also think about simplifying the menu or asking everyone to bring a dish to pass. There's no need, after all, to turn holiday cooking into a Herculean event.
Post Meal Support
So it's happened; despite your deep breathing and being the very pillar of moderation, you push back your chair from the table with a bloated, achy belly and all the signs of indigestion. Not to worry — there's a plethora of herbs that can relax spasming smooth muscles in our digestive tracts, ease the passage of gas and soothe irritation. Some of my favorites include Peppermint, chamomile and Ginger. I often like to enjoy these brewed into a tea after a big meal, but you can also ingest them as tinctures or capsules. Another quick and easy remedy after meals is to chew a handful of dry toasted fennel seeds.
As well, consider trying a few gentle yoga poses; lay down on your back, pull your knees up to your chest and rock gently back and forth — then let your knees drop to one side while you turn your head and shoulders to face the other direction. This often helps move things along and relax cramped muscles — not to mention relaxing the body, which we already know is crucial for happy digestion.
I hope you'll find these tips helpful. Here's wishing you a happy, indigestion-free holiday season!
Writer Danielle Charles Davies holds a Bsc in Herbal Science from Bastyr University and completed the two-year clinical training program at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism in Montpelier, VT. Her writing has appeared in Taproot, The Journal of the American Herbalist Guild, and Kindred Magazine, among others. She lives in Northern Michigan with her husband, two dogs and eight ducks. She blogs at www.bluemoonkitchen.com.
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, or sell any product.