Digesting the joy over the festive season
The festive season may be a time of joy and celebration, but it is also one of overindulgence that can lead to digestive issues. When our social calendar is full of parties, gatherings and get-togethers they often come with heavier meals, treats and perhaps some alcohol that our digestive organs must work hard to break down, assimilate, detoxify, and eliminate. Not only is the excess of rich, concentrated foods that are on offer all around us, but we may also feel overwhelmed by the season due to fewer daylight hours, colder weather, and higher stress levels. This can all contribute to common symptoms of fatigue, low mood, weakened immunity and digestive issues. We explore the importance of digestive enzymes and what exactly they are.
Too much sugar and spice does not make everything nice
Many of us can escape some of the side effects of an occasional heavy meal, however, for others it can leave them fatigued, bloated, full of gas, heartburn, constipated or experiencing loose stools, all of which can be uncomfortable.
A healthy digestive system is essential for the complete breakdown of foods, extracting the many nutrients our body needs for optimal function. Our digestive system rich with gastric juices, bile salts, enzymes, and healthy microbes all work together to digest and support the complete breakdown of fats, carbohydrates and proteins.
What are digestive enzymes?
Every cell in the human body contains thousands of enzymes which are protein powerhouses that are needed for all biochemical reactions and allow our cells and systems to function. Enzymes help with hormone production, enable muscles to contract, regulate our cells, digestion and more. [i]
Without our own natural production of digestive enzymes, we could not break down nor assimilate the nutrients and turn them into fuel from the food we eat. However, we cannot take this system for granted as the more heavily cooked and processed foods we eat the more we call upon our resources which, like any system can weaken over time and output can diminish.
Processed and cooked foods do not contain a lot of digestive enzymes as the heat will destroy and denature the protein structure, therefore we need to get a balance between some cooked foods and raw plant foods such as nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Many natural foods contain plant enzymes that help us digest the food such as pineapple, papaya, raw honey, mangoes, bananas, fermented foods, fresh coconut, and avocado [ii]. We tend to eat a high percentage of raw foods such as fresh fruits, summer salads, juices and smoothies in the summer.
In the colder, winter months and especially at times such as festive celebrations we tend to eat far fewer raw enzyme-rich foods as our choices change dramatically to one of more cooked, heavier, richer foods that can over overwhelm our digestive organs leading to lowered enzyme output or insufficiencies.
This is a time when we may need the extra digestive enzymes to help break down these foods efficiently, if not, we may experience uncomfortable symptoms which can include:
- Abdominal pain or discomfort
- Irritable bowel-type symptoms
- Gut microbiota dysbiosis
- Undigested food in the stools
- Stools that float (steatorrhea)
- Feeling full after only a few mouthfuls
- Food allergies and intolerances
Of course, overeating rich food is not encouraged, however, there are times when we want to enjoy a celebratory meal with family or friends, especially around Christmas or festive seasons. Taking a supplemental digestive enzyme for a short period of time can be a helpful strategy.
Why supplement with digestive enzymes?
There are many other reasons other than overeating why we do not make enough of our own digestive enzymes. Poor enzyme production can lead to problems of nutrient insufficiency, and even deficiency, resulting in a whole host of health problems.
Here are some factors that can greatly impact on digestive enzyme output include:
- Foods or drinks that promote intestinal inflammation including coffee, alcohol, sugar, and highly processed foods.
- Individual food sensitivities like gluten, dairy, corn, soy etc.
- Chronic GI infection or inflammation.
- Repeated antibiotic exposure affects gut microbiota, and digestive and liver health.
- Physical, emotional, or psychological stress, reduces pancreatic digestive enzyme output, as well as affecting many other areas of digestive function and health.
- Pregnancy places extra demands on the body’s energy requirements.
- Ageing leads to a decline in pancreatic and digestive function.
Some digestive enzymes also contain specialist enzymes such as gluten-specific proteases which may reduce the immune response from the gluten proteins by breaking down gluten peptides more thoroughly. This may help to minimise bloating, gas, and discomfort that some individuals who have a mild sensitivity experience when eating a little gluten. They are not a guarantee for those with frank coeliac disease or severe gluten sensitivity so strict adherence to a gluten-free diet is still important.
Supporting digestive enzyme function over the festive period
We all want to enjoy this time of year, especially when we come together with friends or family. We can aid our digestion in other ways by choosing healthier options, being mindful of portion sizes and limiting alcohol. Other ideas could include –
Intermittent fasting – particularly useful if you have been eating late at night, allowing yourself 12-16 hours will give some digestive rest whilst allowing the body time it needs for rest and repair. Ideal in between events and social gatherings.
Hydrate – our digestive juices depend on hydration, add a pinch of Himalayan salt to water along with lemon, limes, oranges to bring some extra flavour and minerals. If you are able add in a fresh smoothie or juice which will deliver the more structured water from fruits and vegetables that our cells can absorb.
Circadian rhythm – avoid staying up late too often as this has an impact on our hormone balance especially those that increase or decrease appetite. Excess artificial light and blue light from our devices and TV can alter our sleep and wake cycles. Our circadian rhythms regulate so much of our digestion, absorption and motility[iii].
Sleep – prioritising sleep is vital for digestion, energy, hormonal balance, and well-being, especially in the winter months when we have shorter darker days. Consistent sleep patterns maintain our circadian balance and support rest and repair.
With a few mindful changes and additions, we may be able to navigate the festive season to have a comfortable, trouble-free digestion.
[iii] Voigt RM, Forsyth CB, Keshavarzian A. Circadian rhythms: a regulator of gastrointestinal health and dysfunction. Expert Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2019 May;13(5):411-424. doi: 10.1080/17474124.2019.1595588. Epub 2019 Mar 25. PMID: 30874451; PMCID: PMC6533073.