I have to start this post by addressing the role of stress in digestion. If your body is in the 'fight or flight' state, under stress, exhausted but thinking of your massive 'to-do' list, the last thing it will be doing is focussing on how well you digest your food!
Christmas can be stressful but given how much more we seem to consume during this time make sure you keep up with your relaxing activities, don't skip your yoga, massage or gentle gym session and start your preparations early (the Boxing Day sales are a great time to purchase next year's presents!).
You are also only stressing your body more if you decide to 'diet' in the lead up to an event like Christmas, which people often do by restricting fats, then get to the holiday period and shock their system with lots of rich, high fat foods during a short period. This can overwhelm the digestive system and encourage it to store the excess, or in some cases can cause gall stones to form. Just stay sensible!
Common Christmas Day and dinner in the UK
In 2013 the hotel chain Travelodge asked 2500 of their guests about their Christmas Day schedules, which included: the first alcoholic drink at 9:05am, breakfast at 9.19am and family sit down for Christmas dinner at 3.34pm.
Considering the promotions in supermarkets at Christmas time, you could also say that a typical Christmas Day breakfast includes rich fatty foods like smoked salmon, fried meats such as bacon and sausages, and eggs which are actually a great source of protein and fat. If, at this early point, alcohol is also introduced, digestion won't be getting off to an optimal start. Combining protein and alcohol requires the most energy to digest, and according to a study by Mario Frezza on High Blood Alcohol Levels in Women, we produce less of the digestive enzyme for alcohol as men. Sad but true.
Snacks and nibbles are readily available consisting often of refined carbohydrates often combined with refined vegetable oils (e.g. pretzels, crisps and breads) and other simple carbohydrates (e.g. dried fruits, sweets and chocolate) which will spike blood sugar.
Christmas dinner may begin with a prawn cocktail usually made with a processed mayonnaise containing refined vegetable oils followed by turkey with stuffing, vegetables and gravy. Turkey is a source of protein, and because it contains the amino acid tryptophan (which is a component of the neurotransmitter serotonin known for its mood enhancing properties and positive effects on sleep) is often said to be the reason we feel so full and sleepy after this meal. However, other foods also contain tryptophan including cheese which is often eaten after the main Christmas meal instead of, or in addition to, dessert. The sleepy feeling could also be a result of the unusually high volumes of food and alcohol being consumed in a short period!
Christmas dinner is not necessarily all bad for the gut. Many traditional Christmas vegetables have digestion promoting properties including cabbage (especially fermented) and brussel sprouts. Chestnuts, often included in stuffing, are good sources of fibre, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and folate.
Whilst dessert is likely to include high amounts of refined sugars which will spike blood sugar before it wears off and the sleepiness sets in. A high cocoa (or cacao) chocolate product is a good source of magnesium and other health promoting ingredients.
Top 10 Tips to Boost Your Digestion on Christmas Day
- Try a short, hard workout Christmas morning to build up your insulin sensitivity so it can play its role better when the glucose hits the bloodstream. Further, according to Ben Greenfield basic strength training before a big meal will activate specific sugar transporters responsible for taking up carbohydrates into muscle tissue, instead of into storage fat. You could try: a jumping jacks or burpees warmup, any squat variations with heavy weights (5-10 repetitions) then any form of body weight (jumping jacks, burpees, stairs) or machine cardio for two minutes. Finish with any deadlift variation with as heavy a weight as you can possibly lift with good form for 5-10 repetitions. Repeat step two, but for one minute instead of two.
- Take 1-2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar before your meal to stimulate your stomach acid.
- Using (a good quality) salt with your meal does will help stimulate your stomach acid too.
- Consider eating dessert first so that the carbohydrates begin digestion before the fats and proteins are added to try and avoid unnecessary fermentation.
- Eat lots of vegetables with your meal for extra fibre. Or even better eat a vegetarian meal; a study on bowel transit times showed that vegetarians have faster transit times than non-vegetarians.
- Homemade gravy using meat juices or stock is a good way to help line and soothe the gut, and will avoid any of the additional carbohydrates and sweeteners added to shop bought, packaged versions.
- Resist having second servings of everything to avoid overloading the digestive system and slowing it down.
- Drink plenty of water, preferably before meals, but especially if drinking alcohol to hydrate the body and keep the gut nice and lubricated.
- Finish off the meal with a cup of peppermint tea to cool and calm the stomach down after the assault. Coffee this late in the day will impact your sleep (unless you're a super fast metaboliser) and coffee can also cause discomfort like acid reflux so probably best to stick to the herbals at this stage. Coffee can be great however, for getting the bowels moving the next morning to 'purge the turkey' ;-)
- Go for a walk after the main meal to use up some of the energy rather than have it stored.