Support your gut micro-organisms
Kristina Campbell, MSc
The digestive difficulties that come with occasional holiday overindulgence are partly attributable to changes in the microbial community within your digestive tract. Here’s how to give your microbes a little TLC, both before and after the festivities.
Distracted in the middle of a loud, crowded holiday party, I looked down at my plate and saw an enormous pile of shrimp tails and assorted paper chocolate wrappers. “Stop putting things on my plate,” I hissed at my husband, who was standing beside me. He shook his head innocently. I hadn’t possibly eaten all those goodies. Or had I?
Despite our best intentions during the holidays, our careful eating patterns might fly out the window while we’re living it up with friends and family. Knowingly or unknowingly, we might be inclined to pop a few extra shortbread cookies or make a real dent in the pecan-crusted cheese ball. Then: another ladle of mulled wine? Yes, please.
Before we know it, we’re leaving the gathering and our digestive system is complaining. The trillions of micro-organisms that live in our digestive tracts—bacteria, as well as archaea, fungi, and viruses—are likely part of the reason for tummy troubles after an onslaught of rich food. These micro-organisms exist in a complex and ever-changing community, and for better or for worse, they respond with exquisite sensitivity to what we eat. When we overindulge, the little critters know it.
Paying attention to these micro-organisms is especially important during a holiday season filled with feasting, since gut microbial changes are linked with vexing digestive symptoms.
The good news? Our gut bugs can be leveraged, even before a party, to prevent us from getting carried away at the canapé table.
Preliminary research shows sleep deprivation can affect gut microbes in a way that might influence food cravings, increasing our drive to consume higher-fat foods and put on weight. If you’re well rested before a treat-filled event, you might enable yourself to avoid holiday overindulgence.
Fibre is well known for making us feel fuller—and experiments show this might be attributable to the way it feeds the micro-organisms in our guts, stimulating the release of hormones that curb hunger. Also, an interesting new line of study showed that a type of fibre called a prebiotic ended up reducing activity in brain regions associated with reward processing—in essence, reducing the appeal of high-calorie foods. Both serve as good arguments for munching on a handful of nuts or a few carrot sticks before arriving at an event.
High alcohol consumption is linked to increased intestinal permeability, which may result in gut microbial community shifts and possible liver dysfunction. If you’re going to have multiple drinks at a party, dilute flavourful spirits with soda water or a natural juice.
Even when you get home after a party, you can give a little TLC to your gut micro-organisms to keep your digestion going smoothly. The main goal is to foster a diverse range of bacterial species in your gut, since diversity has been associated with health benefits in many different studies. Aiming for diversity will ensure a balance between species and might even quell the digestive symptoms you encounter after overindulging.
On the “morning after,” try these tips for the sake of your gut microbiome.
When we’re worried or stressed, the brain notifies the gut to divert from its normal routine and stimulates excessive production of cortisol, so forget the post-party wallowing. Focus on being thankful you’re surrounded by beautiful food and people at this time of year.
Probiotics (live micro-organisms that confer a health benefit) are known to affect the immune system and also relieve digestive symptoms. They come in food form, including yogurt and kefir; live cultures can also be found in traditional fermented sauerkraut or kimchi, and in kombucha, a tart fermented beverage. Supplements are also a good option in some cases, as they provide a higher dose of beneficial bacteria.
Certain high-fibre foods containing prebiotics can act like fertilizer to foster the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut. Foods containing the prebiotic inulin, such as bananas, asparagus, and garlic, are especially beneficial; however, any fruit or vegetable will boost your fibre consumption and help nurture the diversity of micro-organisms in your digestive tract.
Physical exercise and fitness are associated with greater gut microbial diversity. A brisk walk or brief round of stress-relieving exercises can serve as a fun way to help you feel more energized, and it might also change your gut bacteria for the better.
Putting all of this into practice will help keep you on friendly terms with your gut micro-organisms during the holiday season. After all, December is not the time to let digestive issues hold us back: tomorrow brings another party and more holiday overindulgence.
Here are some ideas to help you incorporate probiotics into your busy holiday season.
|Probiotic foods||Probiotic supplements|
|Start the day with a homemade kefir smoothie; make it a festive green colour by adding a handful of spinach.||After you get home from a holiday gathering, pop a probiotic supplement just before bed.|
|When your holiday baking goes into the oven, take a moment to eat half a cup of yogurt—before you have a chance to be tempted by the fresh-baked treats.||Add probiotic powder to a glass of milk or eggnog, to enjoy at the end of the day.|
|Use fermented kimchi as a condiment to eat with leftover chicken or turkey.||Mix a small amount of powdered probiotic supplement into a serving of whipped cream, immediately before using it to top a dessert.|