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Stomach illustration made of pink felt with a red and yellow flame inside, on a red felt background.
Pink felt stomach illustration, with a red and yellow felt flame inside, on a red felt background.

Holiday Stress and Gut Health

Tips to Manage Digestive Trouble During the Holiday Season

Research shows there is a strong two-way connection between your mind and gut. During the holidays, additional stress and other psychological factors can affect your gut health and trigger chronic digestive health issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Stressors around the holidays often include:

  • Long to-do lists
  • Changes to normal routines
  • Extra time with family and friends
  • Additional expenses

Kathryn N. Tomasino, PhD, is a gastrointestinal psychologist and co-director of the Behavioral Medicine for Digestive Health Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

She says stress can impact your digestive functioning and cause these symptoms:

  • Feeling like your stomach is churning or tied up in knots
  • Cramping
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

"Stress can disrupt the communication between the brain and the gut, and gastrointestinal conditions themselves can be stressful," says Dr. Tomasino. "People are relieved to learn that there are ways to address stress so they can get more out of life during the holiday season."

Treating Digestive Issues Caused by Stress

By lowering your stress levels, you can better manage and even eliminate any gastrointestinal symptoms you may be experiencing. To help you cope with holiday stress, even if you're not experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms, you can try:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing
  • Yoga
  • Exercise
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy under the direction of a mental health professional
  • Medical hypnosis under the direction of a mental health professional

Dr. Tomasino adds that there are many apps that can guide you through breathing and mindfulness practices to de-stress during the holidays.

Meeting with a gastrointestinal psychologist like Dr. Tomasino can also help you manage your response to stress related to gastrointestinal disease. They are psychologists who work with patients with gastrointestinal issues to figure out the right course of treatment for their unique needs.

Practice Mindful Eating

"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 says. "Alcohol is another thing that can make stress and gastrointestinal symptoms worse. Eat healthy, regular meals and get physical movement every day so you're more prepared."

When it comes to stress and your gastrointestinal system this holiday season, remember that it's not all in your head. Managing stress and practicing some healthy habits can help improve gastrointestinal symptoms that may otherwise impact your holiday merriment.