By Richard N. Waldman, MD President, The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
During the holiday season, delicious and decadent foods are everywhere. Foods that have the potential to throw the digestive system for a loop are all around. Problems of the digestive system such as constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, and gas occur more frequently in women than in men and may be made worse by changes in hormone levels caused by menstruation and pregnancy. Women are also more likely to develop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common digestive disorder marked by persistent abdominal pain and bowel changes. IBS sufferers may have a strong digestive reaction to stress, large meals, caffeine, dairy products, and large amounts of alcohol—typical staples of the holiday season. Try these tips to avoid seasonal digestive consequences: Eating large meals and not getting enough fiber can trigger constipation. Symptoms may include having fewer than three bowel movements a week, firm or hard-to-pass stools, abdominal swelling or bloating, straining during bowel movements, and a full feeling after a bowel movement. The Fix: Eat at least 25 grams of fiber each day, drink plenty of fluids, exercise, and use the bathroom when you have the urge. Your doctor may also prescribe laxatives or other therapies. You may develop a case of diarrhea—defined as having three or more loose bowel movements in a day—after eating or drinking foods that contain harmful viruses or bacteria. Dairy products, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, certain additives, or medications such as antibiotics can also be a cause. The Fix: Eat hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Skip foods that have been sitting out on the buffet too long. If you have diarrhea, drink fluids to keep hydrated. Drink liquids that contain salt such as sports drinks or broth if diarrhea lasts more than a few hours. Avoid drinks that include dairy products, caffeine, or sugar which can make diarrhea worse. Rich, fatty, or acidic foods, chocolate, coffee, alcohol, mints, and big meals can cause stomach acid to push back into your esophagus and may lead to heartburn, a burning feeling in your chest and throat. The Fix: Avoid overeating. Instead of lying down after a meal, try taking a walk. Gas and bloating can be triggered by hard-to-digest foods such as beans, broccoli, cabbage, and dairy products (for lactose intolerant people). The Fix: Pay attention to which foods give you gas and avoid them. Your doctor may suggest an over-the-counter treatment. Talk to your doctor if your abdominal or digestive discomfort persists. Symptoms that have been present for at least 12 weeks out of the last 12 months may be a sign of IBS or a more serious condition, such as colon cancer. For more information, the ACOG Patient Education Pamphlet “Problems of the Digestive System” is available at www.acog.org/publications/patient_education.