Stuffing? Check. Stiff drinks? Check. Stress? Check. 'Tis the season - for stomachaches. "The holidays create a perfect storm for stomach problems because of all the eating, traveling, and partying," says Roger D. Mitty, M.D., chief of gastroenterology at Caritas St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston. And women are especially vulnerable, since some gastrointestinal ills occur up to six times more often in women than in men. What's more, a recent survey found that during the holidays, nearly half of all women experience heightened stress, which can dramatically contribute to new tummy aches or make existing issues worse. Read on to find sweet relief for the most common holiday-time stomach woes.
THE TRIGGER: You overdo it at holiday meals.
TUMMY TROUBLE: Heartburn (also known as indigestion or acid reflux).
Getting more than your fill - especially of hard-to-digest, rich, fatty foods such as gravy, sausage stuffing, and pie with whipped cream - is a classic cause of indigestion, which typically feels like a searing pain in your upper abdomen and is often accompanied by nausea, bloating, belching, and a sour taste in the mouth. The burn is caused by a backwash of stomach acid into the esophagus and may be triggered by lying down within three hours after a meal, since gravity acts as an important barrier to reversed acid flow. Eating one of the season's traditional sweets, peppermint (whether in hard candy, chocolate, or cake), can also cause heartburn, because it numbs and relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, the muscle that keeps food down in your stomach where it belongs.
If heartburn hits, ease your symptoms by taking an antacid such as Pepto-Bismol, Maalox, Tums, or Rolaids. Better yet, if you know from past experience that you're likely to suffer after a big meal, take a stomach-acid blocker, such as Pepcid Complete or Tagamet HB200, a half hour before eating. These medicines work for eight hours or longer and can prevent indigestion altogether. And try to keep your body upright for a few hours after a feast, even while you're sitting on the couch, instead of curling up for a nap.
THE TRIGGER: You're constantly on the go.
TUMMY TROUBLE: Bloating, gas, and constipation.
You may be on the move, but your bowels aren't! When you're traveling, you may not get up to your usual activity levels or get properly hydrated - key habits for keeping waste moving smoothly through the gastrointestinal tract. You tend to eat out more too, which may mean a doughnut for breakfast instead of your usual fiber-rich cereal, and fewer fresh fruits and vegetables - foods that act like sponges in the intestines, absorbing liquids and leading to soft, easy-to-pass stools.
"Some women get so busy at this time of year they actually forget to make time to go to the toilet," says gastroenterologist Cynthia M. Yoshida, M.D., author of No More Digestive Problems. Or you suppress the urge to go because you lack the privacy you need. (Can't relax with guests banging on the bathroom door? No kidding - who can?) And when you hold back, stool can become dry and difficult to pass.
For relief, try an over-the-counter (OTC) laxative such as Miralax or Colace, which slowly draws moisture into the bowel. It can take one to three days to work. But you shouldn't use them for more than two weeks at a time, because they can become habit-forming, says Yoshida. If you want faster relief, go for a stimulant laxative such as Ex-Lax or Correctol, which makes the colon contract. The downside is it can trigger side effects such as cramping and a "can't wait" urge to hit the bathroom - although you'll feel better once you have a bowel movement.