The holiday season has arrived, a time when many of us will likely be indulging (or overindulging) in our favorite decadent foods—and feeling the consequences! Every year around this time, I think of Hippocrates’s wise words. Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek physician declared that “all disease begins in the gut.” While that may not entirely be the case, scientific evidence continually shows that a balanced, well-functioning digestive system is crucial to overall health.
Interesting, considering most of us don’t pay any attention to our digestion—until something goes wrong. And something often does go wrong. According to a survey of more than 54,000 people in 26 countries, an alarming one in ten people has gastrointestinal issues! There are several potential causes for indigestion (dyspepsia), including:
- Eating too much or too quickly
- Eating fatty, greasy, or spicy foods
- Consuming too much caffeine
- Drinking carbonated beverages
- Certain lifestyle factors, such as smoking and stress
- Taking antibiotics, proton pump inhibitors, or other medications that can disrupt our digestive system and microbiome.
Ever struggle to zip your jeans over your post-meal bloated belly? While our bodies produce small amounts of intestinal gas every day—excessive gas or bloating is often a sign that the bacteria in our intestines are working overtime to break down partially-digested food. Yes, our stomach acid, bile, and pancreatic enzymes usually do an excellent job processing our food—but if any of these are in short supply, you may end up with an uncomfortable belly full of gas! Luckily Mother Nature can help us calm our stomachs and improve digestion.
For immediate and natural support, I often turn to herbal carminatives—a class of plants that dispel gas and relieve bloating. Many of these are common culinary herbs and spices that you may already have at home. Three of my favorites are:
Fennel Seed: commonly served at the end of a meal in Indian restaurants, these licorice-tasting seeds are an excellent way of easing gas and bloating. Chew a few or to make an herbal tea, pour 1 cup boiling water over ½ tsp. seeds, cover, and steep for 10 minutes. Sip when warm and feel the relief!
Ginger Rhizome (Root): a powerful digestive aid, ginger is particularly beneficial if your indigestion also makes you feel a little queazy. Ginger moves food through the digestive tract, easing that “full” feeling while helping to relieve nausea. To make a tea with dried ginger powder, pour 1 cup boiling water over ¼ tsp. powder and steep for 10 minutes. Add honey if desired, sip slowly and enjoy. If using fresh ginger, cut roughly 1 inch of the root into thin slices, place in a saucepan with 2 cups of water, simmer for 15 minutes, then strain and add honey if desired. Again, sip slowly and enjoy the benefits!
Peppermint Leaf: ever wonder why we serve after-dinner mints? It’s because peppermint is a fantastic carminative that works quickly to relax the muscles of the GI tract, dispelling gas more easily and relieving cramps. I recommend keeping a box of peppermint tea in the kitchen cupboard for upset tummies, especially around the holidays. However, if you suffer from heartburn, peppermint can aggravate it, so opt for fennel instead.
If you need something more potent than herbal carminatives, you might want to consider adding a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme to your main meal(s). These products can contain enzymes from plants, like bromelain (pineapple), papain (papaya), or actinidin (kiwi); enzymes derived from fungi, like Aspergillus oryzae, or enzymes from animals, like ox bile. Generally, I lean towards those derived from plants and fungi.
I like Pure Encapsulations Digestive Enzymes Ultra, which is vegetarian and aids in digesting fats, proteins, carbohydrates, dairy, and fiber. NOW Optimal Digestion, Full Spectrum Enzymes is another good choice; derived from fungi, it aids in the digestion of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, beans, and cruciferous vegetables (known gas-producing foods).
However, for an easy way to incorporate some of the digestion-supporting fruits mentioned into your diet, try this smoothie recipe adapted from Keesha’s Kitchen.
- ½ cup papaya chunks
- ½ cup pineapple chunks
- 1 cup kiwi, peeled and sliced
- 1 cup nondairy milk of your choice
- 3–4 ice cubes
Put the first four ingredients into a blender and blend for about two minutes. Add ice cubes and blend for 10–15 seconds more. Pour into a glass and enjoy!
The gut microbiome is unquestionably crucial to our health and wellbeing; unfortunately, it’s easy to disrupt the delicate balance of microbes that inhabit our gastrointestinal tract. Eating more dietary fiber and limiting added sugars are two of the best things we can do to support our gut microbiota (and overall health). Taking probiotics can also be very useful, particularly during the holiday season.
Are you traveling out of the country? Science shows that probiotics can help prevent traveler’s diarrhea, something to consider for your next trip. Start your shelf-stable (non-refrigerated) probiotics two days before leaving and daily while traveling. Probiotics can cut the severity and duration of acute diarrhea and help reduce the risk of numerous common infections.
Figuring out which strain of probiotics to take can be overwhelming. I encourage you to visit usprobioticguide.com, an unbiased science-based tool that ranks the evidence for different products on the market. Look for products with level 1 evidence for acute infectious diarrhea and/or common infectious disease and take as directed.
When you do things to promote overall wellness, your digestive health will benefit, too. So this holiday season, make sure you get extra sleep, exercise (outdoors when possible), practice gratitude, stay well hydrated, eat minimally processed foods, take a good multivitamin with extra vitamin D, and wash your hands frequently; stock up on herbal teas and/or a digestive enzyme, and keep a quality shelf-stable probiotic on hand. If you’re interested in learning more about supporting gut health, check out my latest ebook, Healing Heartburn Naturally.
Talk to your health care professional before taking any new medication, herbal remedy, or dietary supplement if you are taking prescription medications or living with a serious chronic illness.