As a Certified Functional Nutrition Counsellor, I often get asked about the impact of holiday eating and travel on gut health (like the upcoming Easter Holiday Weekend for some this coming weekend).
Many of us – no matter how well-intentioned, tend to overeat and make less healthy food choices during the holidays, leading to digestive issues and other health problems. Additionally, travel can also have a significant impact on our digestive health, making it important to pay attention to our diet and hydration during these times.
(* It is important to note that the advice in this article applies to those who do not have critical food allergies or sensitivities. If you have a known food allergy or sensitivity, please consult with a healthcare provider before making any changes to your diet.)
Let’s first talk about the impact of stress on gut health. During the holidays, stress levels can be heightened due to increased social obligations, financial pressure, and family tension. As you’ve heard me say so many times before; this stress can have a significant impact on our digestive system, as it triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone that can lead to inflammation and damage to the gut lining.
In fact, a study published in the journal Gut found that stress can disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut, leading to a range of digestive issues such as bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. Therefore, it’s essential to prioritize stress management during any holidays or holiday season, whether that’s through meditation, exercise, or simply taking time for yourself to relax.
Now, let’s talk about the impact of holiday eating on gut health. Overeating, indulging in high-fat and high-sugar foods, taking in tons of grains (breads, sweets, etc.), and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can all disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut, leading to inflammation and digestive issues. This can be particularly problematic for those with pre-existing digestive issues such as IBS or Crohn’s disease.
A study published in the journal Nutrients found that a high-fat diet can lead to dysbiosis, a condition where the balance of bacteria in the gut is disrupted, leading to inflammation and other health issues. Similarly, a study published in the journal Gastroenterology found that consuming a high-sugar diet can lead to inflammation and damage to the gut lining.
Add to all of these choices that some of what we consume over the various holidays and/or holiday celebrations and gatherings isn’t a choice at all. Which is to say; when family is preparing food, they may not necessarily be taking into account particular choices or challenges you may currently be having with your health or diagnosis. So, while we’re enjoying flavours or being kind to family who’ve arrived – dishes in hand – we may inadvertently be taking in something that’s likely to cause us digestive disruption later.
Thing is, though, while it’s important to make healthier food choices whenever possible, it’s equally important not to stress too much over calorie counting or macronutrient ratios (‘anytime’, let alone while over-consuming during holidays or travel). We know that stressing about every single meal can actually have a negative impact on our digestive health, as it triggers the release of cortisol, as mentioned earlier. Instead, focus on making healthier choices whenever possible, but don’t beat yourself up over the occasional indulgence.
“I’m sorry but, if your eating is causing you more stress than your lack of health was causing before you started ‘trying to be healthy’, then you’re not eating as you should. The results are likely to be far worse than your original, driving diagnosis, and you’re growing frustration will only cause you to spiral to new lows in overall health.” – Joseph G. Trevors, n.d., CFNC
Finally, let’s talk about the impact of travel on gut health. Whether you’re flying, driving, or taking the train, travel can disrupt our normal routines and lead to dehydration, which can have a significant impact on our digestive health. A lack of hydration can lead to constipation and other digestive issues, making it important to drink plenty of water during your travels.
Additionally, the stress of travel can also have a negative impact on our digestive health, as it triggers the release of cortisol, as we’ve already discussed. Traveling putting some of us into a strong lean toward our sympathetic nervous system response, it’s no wonder people end up with colds or viruses taking hold after travel, digestive upset, unexplained fatigue, and more. Therefore, I feel it’s important to prioritize stress management during travel as well, whether that’s through meditation, deep breathing exercises, reading (changing your focus), or other stress-reducing techniques.
I’ve included points of consideration above, but I also want to remind you that some of the best opportunities come in having your gut health in step before the holidays, and then getting back to it after. This approach is hardly different than when we’re talking to someone about how they may be able to have some dairy, as one example – despite it bothering them in the past – once their gut is in ‘better shape’. If we’ve been working through our 5 R’s of Gut Health with you, then your gut is going to be much better prepared for what’s to come over a holiday getaway. This may not be to say you shouldn’t exercise some control (depending on how bad your diagnosis or gut condition was – and how far along we’ve been able to get with you), but at least you’re better prepared than you were. And following this same train of thought, it will be crucial you get back onto a positive track of pre and probiotics, sleep, etc., after the getaway or gathering is over, right? Indeed.
Holidays and travel can have a significant impact on our gut health, but I want you to have those experiences and memories as badly as you do. There are, however, steps we can take to minimize the negative effects…and that does NOT involve stressing out over it. Prioritizing stress management (in advance and/or during), making healthier food choices whenever possible, and staying hydrated during travel can all help to support our digestive health.
Bottom line? It’s important not to stress too much over every single meal or calorie count, as this can actually have a negative impact on our health. Enjoy family. Experience life. Make memories. We’re here to help you prepare, and to repair after.