Happy senior couple talking while decorating turkey on Thanksgiving day

Stuffed? Help with Holiday Bloating

Here we are again: Thanksgiving. This is the time of year when everyone in my family becomes a glutton. We all make promises not to overindulge and to watch how much we eat, but we almost always fail.

Of course, once we finally recover from that Thanksgiving feast, next up on the calendar is Christmas, which in addition to gifts and moments under the mistletoe, usually brings with it a fresh batch holiday bloating and other digestive discomforts.

As a doctor, my advice is pretty simple for all of these occasions: don't overeat. But I'm also practical. It's hard not to overdo it with all of that amazing food staring you in the face. So eat, enjoy… and just do your best.

Here are some tips for avoiding over-eating this holiday season…and if you do find yourself going back for seconds (or thirds), there are also several supplements that relieve bloating. Let's dig in!

Don’t stuff yourself: Holiday survival tips

Dinner table full of healthy dishes

I'm going to start with a very controversial perspective: I believe you can enjoy those special holiday treats and not end up feeling digestive discomfort afterwards! There are a few ways around that proverbial stuffed-like-a-Thanksgiving-bird feeling:

  1. Portion control:

    Enjoy your favorite holiday foods, but limit the quantities. Have a small scoop of stuffing, macaroni and cheese, and your Aunt Jan's famously sugar-filled cranberry sauce, savor every bite, and then put your fork down and focus on the non-food thrills of your holiday meal. Like watching those sweet little rugrats goofing around at the "kids' table," or observing the beauty of the candlelight twinkling next to the wineglasses.
  2. Healthy holiday substitutes.

    If you're not sure your appetite will be satisfied from "just a taste" of these holiday treats, you might consider a second option: healthy holiday eating, in which you lighten up or "health-if-y" your favorite seasonal recipes. Swap out mashed potatoes for mashed cauliflower. Instead of pumpkin pie, try pumpkin chia pudding. And if you're worried how it will look to other people at your dinner to eat these special foods, make enough for them to try them, too. You'll be a good role model for what it looks like to eat healthy, and you might just save your friends and family from bloating in the process!
  3. Combination of portion control and healthy substitutes:

    Not sure whether you should go for portion control or swap out the pie for chia seeds? My recommendation is to combine both methods. Eat those traditional holiday dishes in moderation, but also pile your plate high with healthy side dishes like vegetables, lean turkey breast and festive salads (like this heart-healthy pomegranate spinach dish). Then you won't feel hungry or deprived!

If a happy tummy is your goal, just be careful about the ingredients you use in your healthier holiday meals. For example, many people use sugar substitutes instead of sugar in their holiday desserts, but some people are sensitive to sugar alcohols and can end up with bloating or other digestive system discomforts even though they didn't overeat.

And many of us can feel bloated immediately after consuming a lot of cruciferous vegetables—such as that cauliflower you're using instead of mashed potatoes. (Or brussels sprouts, which I love at my holiday feast, drizzled with some olive oil and a little sea salt…)

But here's where supplements can be your best friend, whether you're worried about bloating caused by overeating or other digestive discomforts caused by your recipe swap-outs.

What supplements help with holiday bloating?

Woman holding supplements in her hand

Whether you follow this advice to the "T" or completely disregard it the moment you feast your eyes on that epic feast, being proactive is always a good idea.

Specifically, I mean supplements. For example, digestive enzymes can go a long way toward avoiding that "stuffed and bloated" feeling, and there are also supplements you can take year-round to promote healthy digestion.

The following supplements and nutrients can benefit your digestion:

  • Digestive enzymes
  • Probiotics
  • Fennel seed & ginger

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What is tryptophan?

People quip that they're in a "tryptophan turkey coma" after a hearty Thanksgiving meal—but the calming powers of l-tryptophan, an essential amino acid that indeed is found in turkey, is no joke.

L-tryptophan promotes sleep, supports mood health, and encourages a healthy stress response—and best of all, you don't need to eat a super-filling meal to enjoy its benefits, because you can buy tryptophan supplements.

Food sources of tryptophan (aside from turkey) include chicken, eggs, fish, milk, tofu, nuts and pumpkin seeds.

What are digestive enzymes?

Woman holding her upset stomach

The three basic types of food we eat are carbohydrates, protein and fat. Your body produces digestive enzymes to break down each type into their individual "building blocks" for absorption. For carbohydrates, the building blocks are smaller sugars called disaccharides or monosaccharides. The building blocks of proteins are amino acids, and the building blocks of fats are individual fatty acids.

You can purchase supplements that contain these enzymes—many people who don't do well with lactose, for example, always have a lactase-based digestive enzyme supplement handy for whenever they eat dairy.

But maybe you're wondering: if your body makes its own digestive enzymes, why would you want to take a digestive enzymes supplement? Well, digesting 2,000 calories of food (or whatever the grand total of your holiday big meal amounted to) all at once can be overwhelming.

And when your body has trouble digesting food properly, it remains in your digestive tract and can lead to occasional gas. This occasional gas can also be accompanied by bloating, which can easily dampen your holiday cheer.

Foods that contain digestive enzymes

Man cutting papaya which contains digestive enzymes

In addition to supplements, raw foods also provide enzymes that naturally break down food for proper absorption. So during the Thanksgiving feast, try to throw some raw veggies into the mix.

Also consider using fresh cranberries instead of the ones that come in cans. Like papaya and pineapple? Throw them into the mix as well, as they contain key enzymes for digesting proteins.

Probiotics for digestive health

Woman enjoying kefir

Digestive enzymes are great for heading off bloating and other digestive discomforts that result from a big meal. For optimal digestive health (even when it's not a holiday), we recommend that you also take a high-quality probiotic and to eat a diet rich in foods that naturally contain probiotics, like yogurt, kefir and fermented foods such as tofu and sauerkraut.

Why? Probiotics, whether through food or supplements, can provide "good" bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract to help counterbalance "bad" bacteria—so that you'll be in fighting form when that occasional over-indulgence challenges your digestive system's delicate eco-system.

Even if you don't partake in the gastronomic onslaught known as the Thanksgiving dinner, probiotics can benefit your digestive health year-round—as well as your immune health and overall wellbeing.

Digestive enzymes vs. probiotics

So what's the difference between digestive enzymes and probiotics? Digestive enzymes support the actual digestive process—the breakdown of the foods you eat into nutrients. Meanwhile, probiotics support an overall healthy environment within your digestive tract.

Many people supplement with both digestive enzymes and a probiotic. You can also choose a digestive enzyme formula that includes a probiotic.

What nutrients help with bloating?

Spoonful of fennel seed which may help with bloating

In addition to digestive enzymes and probiotics, there are certain nutrients that people have used for generations to deal with bloating, water retention and the other digestive discomforts we may encounter after a hearty meal.

Some of these include fennel seeds, artichoke leaf and ginger. Fennel seeds help inhibit occasional gas production by inhibiting the activity of digestive tract bacteria that create occasional gas, and ginger together with artichoke leaf helps "move your food along" in your digestive tract. A supplement that includes fennel seed and other bloat-relieving nutrients is a must-have for your holiday survival kit!

And if you're offered coffee or tea with that rich holiday dessert, we strongly recommend you choose tea, and peppermint tea at that. Why? Peppermint oil may have some bloat relief properties to it, according to recent research…and, that light touch of mint sure is refreshing after so many decadent flavors!

Weight tips: What to do about holiday bloating

Woman on bathroom scales checking weight after holiday dinner

Bloating is uncomfortable—that goes without saying. For those who are focused on maintaining their weight, it can also be emotionally unsettling to see a larger-than-usual stomach, or to see that number on the scale jump up.

Keep in mind, though, that water retention from eating a large meal (and one that's filled with higher sodium foods than you might normally eat) is normal! If you go back to your usual eating habits after an occasional big meal, you should maintain your healthy weight.

That being said, increase your water intake when you're eating more food is a good idea, and it may help your digestion, too.

We hope these tips help you enjoy those special holiday meals in comfort. Enjoy!

About the Author: Dr. Michael A. Smith received his medical doctorate from the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center, and he practiced Internal Medicine and Radiology in Dallas, Texas in the early 2000s. Dr. Smith is the author of The Supplement Pyramid: How to Build your Personalized Nutritional Regimen. He is also the host of the Live Foreverish podcast and Facebook Live show for Life Extension.