By Rachel Redman, Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant to VSL#3
Christmas is fast approaching, festive cheer is in the air, and after last’s year’s Christmas lockdown, family reunions are set to be bigger and better than ever. Indulgent food and celebratory drinks are on the menu, and rightly so at this special time of year. But so are reduced levels of activity and sleep, not to mention increased levels of stress. All of which can have a profound effect on our gut microbiome. That’s why we asked registered dietitian and nutrition consultant to VSL#3 Rachel Redman to offer her top tips for looking after your gut health during this festive period.
- Feast on fibre-rich foods
A traditional Christmas feast offers a panoply of choice when it comes to those all-important fibre-rich foods: essential for keeping things moving, and critical to maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. Not only do they help create bulk and reduce the risk of constipation, they are also an excellent source of prebiotics, which selectively promote the growth and diversity of “good” bacteria in our gut. So take advantage of any fibre-containing foods you can find on your Christmas table: brussel sprouts, broccoli, carrots, leeks, cabbage, onion, garlic, chesnuts, potatoes (skin-on and/or cooked & cooled), dried fruit puddings (Christmas pudding, fruit cake, mince pies) to mention a few…
- Lap-up those polyphenols
Dietary polyphenols are naturally occurring plant-based chemicals, recognised for their potent antioxidant properties and potential health benefits. They are mainly absorbed in the large intestine and have been shown to promote the growth of “good” bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. And, as if by magic, nature packages these little beauties in some of the best tasting foods you can find: fruits, vegetables, nuts & seeds, olive oil, tea, cocoa products, and even wine… Herbs and spices such as oregano, black pepper, cayenne pepper, ginger, rosemary, fenugreek are rich in phenolic compounds, as well as exhibiting prebiotic potential, by selectively stimulating beneficial bacteria. So why not spice up your Christmas with some of these delicious, antioxidant, gut-friendly polyphenols!
- Make simple food swaps
One of the quickest and easiest ways to give your gut some love this Christmas is to make some simple food swaps. Swap out the stodge, for some tasty polyphenol-rich gut-healthy alternatives:
- Use extra virgin olive oil instead of vegetable oil, butter or goose fat
- Swap straight prosecco and champagne for freshly-squeezed orange Buck’s Fizz or peach-puree Bellinis
- Choose polyphenol-rich red wine over high alcohol spirits
- Favour 70% dark chocolate over milk chocolate
- Try mixed nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts) instead of crisps
- Tuck into good-old Christmas pudding or mince pies, rather than a chocolate Yule-log
- Switch spice-flavoured sugar syrups in your hot drinks with polyphenol-rich Christmas spices like ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg
- Follow the 80:20 rule
Whilst we all deserve to indulge around Christmas time, the 80:20 rule is one worth keeping in mind. Try to identify when you feel around 80% full (e.g. comfortably satisfied). At this point, stop eating. It’s no secret that it can take our brains up to 20 minutes to recognise we’re full, through satiety signalling pathways. By stopping when you’re 80% full and waiting 20 minutes to assess how you’re feeling, you’ll likely avoid overeating, and associated side effects of bloating, indigestion, discomfort and sluggishness.
- Go for a stroll
We all know exercise is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, but did you know it can also impact your gut microbiome? Studies suggest that aerobic fitness is correlated with increased diversity of gut bacteria in healthy humans, an important factor for overall health. Exercise also appears to favour the production of butyrate, an important by-product of microbial fermentation in the colon. Butyrate is known for its protective role in maintaining gut barrier function, and in metabolic diseases like heart disease and diabetes. What better way to support your gut health this Christmas, than to enjoy a frosty festive family stroll after your Christmas feast?
- Rest up
Did you know that our gut microbes are regulated by a circadian rhythm, just as we are? And that they can be negatively affected by poor sleep? Studies have found that microbiome diversity is positively linked to increased sleep efficiency and total sleep time, while sleep deprivation can lead to changes in gut microbiome composition. One of the best natural approaches we can take to improve our physical and mental health this Christmas, is to optimise the quality (and quantity) of our sleep. Good quality sleep allows the brain and body to engage in processes of recovery, promoting better physical and mental performance. Top tips to maximise your sleep quality include aiming for 7-9 hours sleep per night, getting to sleep between 8pm and 12am, avoiding light disruption, keeping the room temperature between 18-19°C, avoiding caffeine after lunch, and switching all screens off at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
- Stay hydrated
Water is the single most important “nutrient” our body needs to survive. Without water, we’d die in 3 days; without food, we’d survive up to two months. That says it all, doesn’t it? In winter, it’s easy to forget to drink, as we’re not obviously losing water or sweating like we do in summer. Plus, we may not feel as thirsty when we’re enjoying plenty of celebratory drinks. Good hydration is critical to regulating our body temperature and mood, maintaining our immune system, and of course, supporting our gut health and function, to avoid constipation. It can also affect our appetite, as thirst signals are often confused with hunger. So whenever you feel peckish, have a glass of water or a cup of tea, before you reach for those festive snacks. And aim for 8 to 10 cups of water a day, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Your body will thank you for it.
Wishing you a Christmas that's merry and bright!
Prebiotic Potential and Chemical Composition of Seven Culinary Spice Extracts - Lu - 2017 - Journal of Food Science - Wiley Online Library
Cardiorespiratory fitness as a predictor of intestinal microbial diversity and distinct metagenomic functions (nih.gov)