Dealing with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be tricky no matter what time of year it is. (Shout out to everyone who knows exactly where all the private bathrooms are at their workplace.) But dealing with a sensitive stomach prone to pain, cramping, diarrhea, or constipation can be especially rough during the holidays.
Not only can stress levels run higher than usual (which can exacerbate the condition), there’s also an influx of boozy holiday parties, long, sit-down family meals full of rich foods, and of course all the holiday traveling. When you’re preoccupied with thoughts about your finicky digestive system, it can take away from the joy of the holiday season.
Fortunately, IBS Nutrition founder, The 28-Day Plan for IBS Relief author, and registered dietitian Audrey Inouye, RD is here to help. Inouye specializes in helping people manage their IBS symptoms, both through what they eat and other lifestyle tips that extend beyond diet. Here, she gives solutions to the biggest stressors people with IBS worry about this time of year. Keep reading for her expert intel.
Managing IBS amidst holiday stress
For many people, there’s a direct correlation between stress and their IBS symptoms. And despite what your fave Hallmark movie may depict, the holidays can be a very stressful time. Family get-togethers, present-related money woes, meeting end-of-year work goals, the general business of the season…it’s a lot to handle at once.
“Whether your IBS presents as bloating, diarrhea, or constipation, stress can make all of it worse,” Inouye says. She says that many people don’t often make the connection between stress and digestive woes, always assuming a flare up was related to something they ate. But nope—it’s often stress!
“That’s why it’s especially important to schedule regular ‘me-time’ during the holidays as a preventive measure,” Inouye says. “Even if it’s just 10 minutes doing something for yourself, that can make a difference.” She especially recommends scheduling regular workouts—even just 15 minute walks—as exercise has been shown to lessen IBS symptoms. (It’s also great for stress management, so consider that two birds with one kettlebell.)
Inouye is also a major advocate of deep belly breathing as a way to calm both the mind and gut at the same time—especially since it’s something you can do anywhere (in a meeting, at a party, on the plane…) without anyone noticing. “The way to do this is by taking a deep breath and filling your stomach up, so that it sticks out; the belly should go out and in as opposed to up and down,” she explains.
Holiday traveling and IBS
The thought of being cooped up on a plane or in a car for several hours can give someone with IBS major anxiety. Inouye’s major tip for holiday travel: be prepared. “Bring your own snacks; foods you know sit will with your body,” she says. “That way, you’re not at the mercy of whatever is available.” If you find yourself at the airport or a gas station and are looking for something your body can tolerate, she recommends low-FODMAP foods like oranges, bananas, rice crackers, a ham and cheese sandwich (preferably on gluten-free bread), or peanuts. She also recommends people who experience diarrhea as an IBS symptom avoid coffee while traveling, as it can stimulate the colon.
“Taking a peppermint oil capsule can also help with abdominal cramping and pain,” Inouye says. For people who experience diarrhea as an IBS symptom, she also recommends packing Imodium or another anti-diarrheal as a precaution.
Besides going into your travel plans prepared, Inouye says taking regular bathroom breaks, opportunities to move your body (which she says helps with bloating and constipation), and getting enough fiber can also help. “It can be challenging to eat enough fiber when you’re traveling, so I often recommend clients take a little bag of chia or flaxseeds to sprinkle into their yogurt or cereal in the morning,” Inouye says.
Holiday parties and IBS
When it comes to holiday parties, Inouye says what’s most important is avoiding foods and drinks that are known to make IBS symptoms worse. To this end, it’s not a bad idea to have a snack or small meal before the party that you know your body tolerates well. That way, you don’t arrive hungry and pile your plate with apps you aren’t sure how your body will react to.
“Try to stick with low-FODMAP foods like carrots, red pepper, and cucumber from the crudite platter, hard cheeses like cheddar and provolone, and fruits like oranges and cantaloupe,” she says. When it comes to what to avoid, Inouye says foods with garlic and onion are notoriously unkind to people with IBS. She also says overdoing it on wheat-based foods (including pasta or holiday desserts) can be aggravating as well.
As far as drinks go, Inouye says she’s a big fan of clear liquors mixed with soda as a good low-FODMAP choice and says red wine also is a safe choice for most people with IBS. “Some people with IBS have a problem with beer because the carbonation can make them feel bloated if they drink too much of it,” she says. She also says to steer of hot apple cider at holiday parties as apples are a high-FODMAP food.
Big holiday meals and IBS
All the eating rules Inouye says to keep in mind at holiday parties double as good advice for big meals, too. “You also want to be conscious not to overload your stomach by eating too big of a serving at once,” she says. “It’s really important to pace yourself.”
While the temptation at holiday meals is always to fill your plate with seasonal favorites you only have once a year, remind yourself that you don’t have to eat everything at once. “More often than not, there will be plenty of leftovers!” Inouye says.
Her advice of using movement to mitigate constipation and bloat also bears repeating, so if you’re able to take a walk around the block—whether it’s with the family dog or a few friends—after your meal, it will be to your body’s benefit to take advantage of it.
Whatever situations this holidays season brings your way, Inouye’s best advice is to keep calm and be prepared to the best of your ability. By taking a few extra precautions, you’ll be able to focus on what’s really important: enjoying time with loved ones this magical time of year.
Check out the video below for a registered dietitian’s tips for eating with gut health in mind:
These are the IBS myths gut experts want everyone to stop believing. Plus, five foods that help lessen IBS symptoms.
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