From Thanksgiving feasts to Christmas dinners, food seems to play a star role this time of year. And with the stress that often comes along with planning, hosting and traveling, it may seem like a good time to take comfort in all the yummy treats.
But you may want to think again. When your body is tense, your digestive system tends to go wacko.
We've put together six tips and strategies that can help keep your system balanced without sacrificing a happy turkey day, or getting bogged down by it.
1. First, pause
Before you eat, take three deep breaths, suggests Elisa Haggarty, a functional nutritionist in New York City and the founder of Culinary Farmacy. Deep breaths stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you and keeps your stomach and intestines happy.
“Our digestive system is not prepared to break down food during times of stress,” Haggarty says.
When you pause, you also have a chance to smell your food. Aromatics help with food's chemical breakdown.
“The brain secretes salivary enzymes, and that's when digestion begins. You can actually feel the saliva that moves from the back of the mouth to the front of the mouth,” Haggarty says. Saliva helps break down the starches in food, and it helps food make its way to your stomach.
2. Keep fat-laden foods in check
Too much fat can slow digestion a lot. Thankfully, turkey, the Thanksgiving staple, is low in fat.
3. Eat your veggies
“Dietary fiber from leafy greens or vegetables and fruit are great digestive-support ingredients,” Haggarty says. That's because they keep things moving from your stomach to your intestines.
If you're eating slowly, chewing should be a breeze. You'll know you're set when you can swallow easily. Chewing breaks down food so it's easier to digest.
“There is no supplement on the planet that will replace chewing,” Haggarty says.
5. Slow down
You've probably got all day to eat on Thanksgiving. Take advantage of it. On other days, commit to it. We all have at least a few extra moments we can spend eating. Your brain needs about 20 minutes to know you're full. No one likes being physically uncomfortable, so avoid it altogether by taking a little longer to finish your meal.
Once you're done eating, give your insides a while to do their work. Depending on what you consumed, that might mean only 30 minutes or as long as two hours. If you're feeling bloated or like digestion isn't moving along well, a few things might help:
- Fennel seeds or cardamom.
6. Get physical
When you finally don't feel stuffed, move a little. Take a walk, or do some gentle yoga. Physical activity is good for your digestive system.
“I'm a big fan of twisting poses,” says Angel Lucia, founder and owner of Bindu Yoga in West Palm Beach, Florida, and a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. “It stimulates the peristaltic movement of the intestinal track. Twisting in combination with deep breathing creates more stimulation and movement through the whole tract.”
Try the following yoga poses to ease discomfort:
- Reclined yoga twist
Lie on your back, with your arms reaching out from your shoulders. Bring the soles of your feet to the ground ahead of your sitting bones. Inhale and lift your feet from the ground. Then drop your legs to the right as you exhale. Take 5-10 breaths. Switch sides.
- Seated forward fold
Sit with your legs extended ahead of you. Separate them, if that feels more comfortable. Place a rolled blanket or towel under your knees. Inhale, and fold from your hips as you exhale, letting your torso reach over your legs as you soften your neck. Place a cushion or bolster across your belly, Lucia suggests, which will support you and encourage deep breathing. Take 10 to 20 breaths.
BONUS: Forward folds are calming. This means they're also helpful before eating because they activate your parasympathetic nervous system – making it even easier to pause for a few breaths before you start any holiday meal.
Learn more about journalist Mitra Malek at mitramalek.com.