While December can be great for our social lives, it’s not always so good for our body. It’s not uncommon to suffer end-of-year burnout as we slowly slip into January.
The party season puts our physical and mental health under a huge amount of pressure. Seven out of 10 Brits have have admitted the burden of Christmas negatively affects their mental health, reporting feeling overwhelmed, anxious and tired. Plus, the increasing cost of living can only add to this.
Add to the mix, extra alcohol consumption and a diversion from our regular diet as the buffet spreads come out in full force, (according to scientists at Birmingham University the average person can consume 6,000 calories on Christmas Day alone — that’s three times the recommended daily allowance), and it's no wonder our wellbeing can take a battering — specifically our digestive health.
The gut environment — or microbiome — is constantly in flux, and the trillions of bacteria (both good and bad) that live inside us are responsible for regulating energy, immunity, mood, weight, skin health and more. "The excess of the festive season can have a negative impact on gut health. For example, alcohol can disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut, overeating can also exacerbate digestive symptoms, and furthermore: our system is particularly susceptible to the effects of stress," says Hannah Braye, a nutritionist at Bio-Kult (bio-kult.com).
But fear not: we're not suggesting your Christmas diet has to be perfect — if there’s any time to break free from the diet shackles it’s now — but with a few tricks up your sleeve you can safeguard your gut from seasonal sluggishness and enjoy Christmas symptom-free.
Put on a prebiotic spread
Nothing screams ‘party food’ better than a pretty array of canapes, but shop-bought festive faves like cheesy puffs and sausage rolls are usually packed with additives that can actually dwindle down the number of beneficial bacteria that reside in the gut. This can leave you feeling bloated and uncomfortable.
On the plus side, you can easily whip up some simple canapés with just a few ingredients — and if you base your bites around prebiotic foods and your gut will thank you for it later.
Prebiotics are a type of fermentable fibre that help to improve the microbiome. "They essentially act as a food source for beneficial species of bacteria in the gut," explains Braye.
Garlic, artichoke, bananas, oats and asparagus are all good examples of prebiotics that you can sneak onto your Christmas menu. Sauté prawns in garlic and pop them onto skewers served with a yoghurt dip or roast asparagus spears and wrap in Parma ham or smoked salmon for prebiotic crowd-pleasers.
For best results, start introducing prebiotics into your diet now so that you can give your body time to get used to them.
Repopulate your gut bacteria
Taking a probiotic is like filling up your car with a tank of petrol before a long journey, it’s pretty much a non-negotiable to help keep your gut health on track. "Probiotic supplements are good idea to support your gut health all year round. However, given how important our gut microbes are for our immune function, having them now may be particularly beneficial to help ward off pesky bugs and infections, and to deal with the excesses of the Christmas season," shares Braye.
Taking a probiotic is like filling up your car with a tank of petrol before a long journey, it’s pretty much a non-negotiable to help keep your gut health on track.
The most common strains to help safeguard digestive health are bifidobacterium and lactobacillus bacteria so look for a supplement that contains these species amongst others. There is a wide variety of probiotic supplements available, but in general it’s a good idea to take one that contains a minimum of eight different live bacteria strains and up to 10 billon CFU (an estimation of bacterial colonies) to get more bang for your buck. Try Bio-Kult Everyday, (£19.98, bio-kult.com)
Add kefir to your Christmas breakfast
For some, Christmas morning wouldn’t be the same without clinking with bubbles whilst munching brekkie, but before you sip the fizz, have a shot of kefir. The fermented milk drink helps to add more gut-supportive goodness by populating the microbiome so that you suffer less bloating and abdominal discomfort.
And if you want to take it one step further you could swap your glass of fizz for kombucha to give your gut more of the goodies it craves. "This fermented tea drink contains many bioactive compounds, and it’s low in sugar making it a preferable alternative. Some of the compounds in the drink can also alter the composition of the gut microbial community by inhibiting pathogenic (bad) microorganisms," says Braye.
Skip the crisps
You’ll probably feel peckish as you prep your trimmings, and while it might be tempting to crunch your way through a family sized bag of crisps, what your gut really needs is a healthier grab-and-go option.
Nuts are a fail-safe go-to as they are crammed with gut-loving fibre. Add a drizzle of honey and a pinch of cinnamon to raw nuts, then pop them in the oven until nice and golden for a festive snack. "Fibre is vitally important for digestion as it keeps our bowel movements regular. Fibre also plays a key role in regulating appetite, keeping us feeling full for longer," believes Braye.
Edamame beans are also a great go-to nibble as their little pods are filled with fibre. A 100g serving (aka a handful) contains a very decent 6g of fibre to help you work your way to the recommended 30g daily quota.
For convenience, buy frozen edamame beans and place the pods in the microwave for speediness. Top with a sprinkling of sea-salt or chilli flakes for the perfect gut-friendly nibble.
"Interestingly, evidence suggests that eating a diet high in fibre and taking a live bacteria supplement may offer some protection to gut bacteria and the liver from excess alcohol consumption," adds Braye. Who knew?
Swap gum for fennel seeds
If you use gum to freshen your breath after Christmas socials, it might benefit your oral health by increasing saliva flow to strengthen tooth enamel, but it’s bad news for your digestion. Most gum contains artificial sweeteners which can cause digestive distress, triggering symptoms like bloating and gas.
Swap it out for a teaspoon of fennel seeds for quick relief. The aniseed-tasting seeds are particularly effective at resetting gut health and they freshen your breath too — double win! "If you’ve overindulged, fennel can help. Chew on the fennel seeds themselves, or soak one teaspoon of fennel seeds in hot water and drink as a tea after eating," advises Braye.
Massage your abdomen
After eating your body weight in roast potatoes, who doesn’t want to snuggle back on the sofa and stick on Netflix.
Rich food slows down digestion so give your gut a helping hand to get back on track with a five-minute abdominal massage. Lying down on your back, rub the abdomen in a gentle clockwise motion. Start on the right side near your pelvic bone, move upwards until you reach your ribcage and then move across to the left side, working down towards the hips using small circular movements to get your bowels moving.
"You could also wrap up warm, get outside and go for a winter walk instead of getting stuck in a food coma on the sofa. Gentle exercise has been shown to enhance intestinal gas clearance and reduce symptoms in those who suffer with abdominal bloating," says Braye.