Christmas and New Year are synonymous with over-indulgence. Party food, plenty of booze (or sugary mocktails), coupled with extra stress can leave many feeling run down or bloated.
But for some people, festive food and drink bring on something worse than a grumbly tummy: They are triggers for IBS, which is often worse as party canapes and pastry-laden treats do the rounds.
According to the IBS Network, the condition affects around 10-20% of people living in the UK, and it’s the most common diagnosis made by gastroenterologists worldwide, says an article in the British Journal of Medical Practitioners.
But while there’s no full ‘cure’ for IBS, there are ways you can try and beat the cramps, bloats and toilet trips while you party through Christmas.
It’s amazing how many times experts tell us that water is essential, yet it’s a message that still needs driving home. While you might crave a fizzy drink, coffee or juice to help that hangover, water is the best option. Some people will rely on herbal tea, but be careful there aren’t any hidden triggers in the ingredients.
Natasha Mir is a dietitian who works at Guys and St Thomas’ hospital in London, helping people with IBS. While peppermint tea might work for some, it can exacerbate symptoms for those who suffer with reflux, she warns. So the best thing is, you guessed it, water. Mir says: “Coffee or other caffeinated drinks can make you feel worse. Try and swap to water to help hydrate yourself.”
Know when to say “no thanks”
Nobody wants to offend their host, but needing the loo because you didn’t say no to a vol-au-vent isn’t fun for anyone at a party.
“Don’t be afraid to say no,” says Mir. “It’s that self-care aspect. You could bring your own snacks to a party, for example. The key thing is to plan in advance. We know it’s the festive season, so it’s about thinking how you plan around that. If you know something is a trigger for you, try to avoid it. But if you do decide to eat it, appreciate that you might get some symptoms.”
Avoid trigger foods
Talking of trigger foods, it’s time to remind yourself what really sets your stomach off. Everyone’s IBS is different – one person might be fine with some wheat while another gets cramps just looking at a blini or cheese cracker.
The IBS network says that just because it’s Christmas, don’t forget what you can and can’t tolerate. “High fat sauces, Christmas pudding and mince pies, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, garlic and onions can trigger IBS symptoms,” they say.
“If you know garlic is a food that triggers your symptoms, it’s still going to be a problem in December,” Mir adds. Unfortunately, the festive season doesn’t mean that your body has a respite. “Think ‘I’m not going to have the food that could make me feel worse or trigger my symptoms, I’m going to try to stick to the foods that I know are not my triggers’.” You’ll be glad you did in the morning.
Weigh up the pros and cons
So you really, really, desperately want that slice of stollen/Yule log/spoonful of stuffing. OK, go for it! But watch your portion sizes and remind yourself this might cause trouble later on. Just like texting an ex, is it really worth the ‘hit’?
“Do you get a bit of tummy pain or bloating but enjoy a mince pie so much you’ll eat it? Or will it ruin your whole weekend?” asks Mir. “Part of a ‘treat’ food is enjoying it and feeling good. It’s only the individual who can decide if it’s worth it.”
Pack the essentials
“If you are going away, make sure you pack any medicines. Some antacids and anti-flatulence treatments are good to have on hand. Speak to one of our experts or consult your doctor or pharmacist for more advice, if needed,” advises the IBS network.
You’d also do well to have some key items in your bag. Whatever tablets you need, some wipes and even a change of underwear, should the worst happen. That way you’ll relax more, and reducing stress is very important (see below).
This time of year can be super hectic but it’s also a time of contemplation and relaxation. Try and be mindful, eat slowly, and spend some time relaxing. That could be in front of a film, or getting some fresh air on a walk.
For some, it could be a spin class or run gets your endorphins flowing and makes your gut happier. Find time for what works: Stress is a huge part of IBS, and reducing it when you can will help.
For more info and support, take a look at the IBS Network Self-Care Programme.