Holiday Stress and Gut Health: Tips to Manage Digestive Trouble
I tell patients that even though psychological factors may be part of their issue, their symptoms aren’t in their head. They’re very real and very treatable, and the evidence-based care we provide can be life-changing.
Research shows there is a strong two-way connection between the gut and the brain. During the holidays, additional stress and other psychological factors can affect a person’s gut health, exacerbating symptoms and triggering chronic digestive health issues.
“Holiday parties and gatherings can bring a lot of fun, but long to-do lists, changes to normal routines and extra time with family and friends can also cause a lot of stress,” said Kate Tomasino, PhD, gastrointestinal psychologist and co-director of the Behavioral Medicine for Digestive Health Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
“Stress can impact a person’s digestive functioning. Some people say their stomach churns, or others say their stomach feels tied up in knots. Those are very real responses that can affect a person’s digestive health. Some people experience cramping and diarrhea, and others can experience constipation. Patients are relieved to learn that there are ways to address stress so patients can get more out of life.”
Dr. Tomasino uses treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and medical hypnosis to help patients cope with diagnoses like inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and other chronic digestive health issues. She also recommends diaphragmatic breathing, yoga and exercise to help patients manage stress during the holidays.
“Many of the patients we treat are currently receiving care from a gastroenterologist, but everyone can experience digestive health issues,” Dr. Tomasino said. “The techniques we use with our patients can help anyone cope with stress, and we even suggest that people look at apps that offer breathing, mindfulness and even behavioral therapy support.”
During the holidays, many people prepare for parties by skipping meals early in the day. When they attend those parties, they may also overindulge in food and alcoholic beverages that trigger a landslide of symptoms.
“Sometimes people think it’s a good idea to skip meals because they’ll be eating rich foods at a holiday party, but it’s better for your gastrointestinal tract to eat consistent meals,” Dr. Tomasino said. “Alcohol is another thing that can make stress and gastrointestinal symptoms worse. We tell patients to eat healthy, regular meals and to get physical movement every day so they’re more prepared for a few holiday indulgences.”
As part of the Digestive Health Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Dr. Tomasino works with a multidisciplinary team that helps patients control symptoms and manage their condition or disease. The Behavioral Medicine for Digestive Health Program is one of the largest in the nation.
“Stress can disrupt the communication between the brain and the gut, and gastrointestinal conditions themselves can be stressful,” Dr. Tomasino said. “We work closely with gastroenterologists, hepatologists, allied health providers and dietitians to help patients get the well-rounded treatment they need. Some benefit from medications or procedures, and many others find they need fewer medications after learning how to manage their responses to stress. I tell patients that even though psychological factors may be part of their issue, their symptoms aren’t in their head. They’re very real and very treatable, and the evidence-based care we provide can be life-changing.”