What do you love most about Christmas? I know I’m not alone in saying that, for me, the festive season is all about the feasting. (Oh – sharing the love with my nearest and dearest is also right up there too, of course.)
But as anyone with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) will know – and that’s one-in-five of us – all that rich grub and extra booze (for some) can wreak havoc with our digestive systems.
While not considered medically serious – unlike inflammatory bowel diseases like Chrohn’s and conditions like coeliac, which can lead to serious complications if not properly treated and managed – IBS can still be highly distressing and have a significant impact.
Symptoms include bloating, wind, diarrhoea, constipation and abdominal cramps, and can range from mild to severe, often brought on, or worsened, by a range of ‘triggers’ – and Christmas, wonderful as it is, is teeming with potential IBS triggers.
But fear not, with a few tweaks, and a little bit of planning, you can still have your Christmas cake – and not spend the next 24 hours wishing you hadn’t eaten it! Follow our guide for IBS flare-up-free (mostly!) festive feasting ...
Strike stress off the menu
Many of us find Christmas a stressful time of year, with the pressure on to spend money/please everybody/rush around. Stress is a major factor in IBS – and no, that’s not to say it’s just ‘in your head’, or it’s your fault for being ‘too stressed’. It’s about recognising that stress causes hormonal changes, which can manifest in physical symptoms. Acknowledging this – and taking appropriate steps to manage stress – is often a turning point. So take the pressure off, and ensure you factor in time to relax.
Operate some portion control
It might be tradition to pile your plate with a mountain of food on Christmas day, but your bowels won’t thank you for it. “The more you eat on Christmas Day, the harder your digestive system has to work to process all that food – and that means it produces excessive gas,” advises Helen Bond, a consultant dietitian to Buscopan. “The solution is to eat smaller meals regularly, rather than saving yourself for a once-a-day blow out.”
Don’t ditch exercise
Regular exercise can be extremely helpful in managing IBS. Not only do our digestive systems become more sluggish when we’re not physically active, but exercise is fantastic for helping combat stress too (double whammy!), so don’t let festive socialising, that Christmas to-do list, or winter’s cold weather and dark, gloomy days, stop you from being active. “Long wintry walks with the family, ten-pin bowling, even an hour on the Wii, can all help speed up a sluggish digestion, relieve stress and help ease IBS symptoms,” notes Bond.
Watch out for ‘windy’ forecasts!
Gas and bloating are common IBS symptoms – and a Christmas Day spread can be full of veggies known for causing excess wind! Of course, Brussels sprouts are the prime culprit, along with peas, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli.
There’s no need to cut out vegetables entirely (in fact that would NOT be wise). But bear in mind that large quantities of these parp-inducing foods do result in gas.
Don’t skip meals
It can be tempting to skip meals earlier in the day – maybe you have a party to go to and don’t want to be bloated, or perhaps you’re going out for a meal and think having an ‘empty stomach’ will minimise symptoms flaring up. This tactic is rarely a good idea though, and often backfires, resulting in low energy, sluggishness and binging, because you’ve let yourself get too hungry.
Avoid party food pitfalls
If you know the party buffet is definitely not going to ‘agree with you’, how about eating beforehand or taking along your own food?
If you do opt to tuck into the buffet, be mindful of potential trigger foods. “Rich and fatty party food can play havoc with IBS, especially if you suffer from diarrhoea. Steer clear of pastry (quiche, vol-au-vents, sausage rolls and pork pies, for example), fried foods (crispy wontons, spring rolls and samosas) and chocolates and mince pies. All-round healthier buffet choices include fresh prawns, salmon and lean meat, chicken satay sticks and egg sandwiches,” says Bond.
Be savvy with the booze
Want to enjoy a drink or two over the festive period? Bond suggests keeping bubbly drinks – like champagne, Prosecco, beer and soft fizzy mixers - to a minimum, if you want to avoid feeling gassy.
Another thing to consider is that alcohol in itself can be an IBS trigger for some, and for those sensitive to fructose/fruit sugars, drinks like wine, port and fruity cocktails could lead to diarrhoea.
Stock up on IBS-friendly alternatives
You don’t want to miss out on the festive feasting fun, but if you know you have specific triggers - like diary/lactose - plan ahead and stock up on variations you can enjoy. “If you are lactose intolerant, you don’t have to feel like you are missing out on the after dinner cheese board, why not stock up on some lactose free cheeses?” suggests Bond. Similarly, if raisin-filled puds and cakes don’t agree, get an alternative dessert in.
Lay some good foundations
Amid all the fun and treats, don’t forget to drink plenty of water. We’re more prone to dehydration when we’re over-indulging and drinking more alcohol, plus water aids in digestion. Peppermint has also been found to help ease digestive symptoms, so how about sipping some peppermint tea during the day?
l For more information and tips for managing IBS, visit www.ibs-relief.co.uk