Don't Let IBS Ruin Your Holidays

Celebrate stress-free by knowing your triggers and planning ahead.

feast, party, grilled vegetables

The holidays are just around the corner. If you’re one of the 10 to 15 percent of adults who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the approaching holiday season may cause more trepidation than joy.

IBS is what the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases calls a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder: your gut behaves abnormally, even though there’s no indication of disease. People with IBS have abdominal pain and changes in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhea. It tends to affect about twice as many women as men. While doctors don’t know exactly what causes IBS, stress does increase activity in the colon in many of those suffering from the disease.

In the spirit of happy holidays, here are a few tips for making the most of your special times with family and friends—even if you have IBS.

Establish a good relationship with your doctor. “IBS is a personalized disease,” says Eric Liu, MD, a digestive surgeon at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center and the Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers in Denver, Colorado. “Typically people have different types of symptoms, different triggers. Make sure you have a good relationship with your physician and always ask for advice from the person who knows you the best from a medical perspective.”

Avoid trigger foods. We know: some of your favorite holiday foods aggravate your disease. It’s disappointing. However, discipline is actually very, very important, Liu says. “If you know for sure that mashed potatoes with butter are going to set off your IBS symptoms, you really have to avoid them.”

Stay the course with your medications. Don’t stop taking your IBS medications during the holidays and continue to follow whatever symptom-management regimen is working for you. Furthermore, Liu says, talk to your physician before taking a long car ride or flight. You may need additional medications (for example, anti-diarrheal drugs) to get you comfortably through your travel.

Try new foods ahead of time. “If you know someone is serving something and you’re not sure if you can eat it, try some beforehand and see if it’s a trigger,” Liu says. Then you’ll know whether you can safely partake when you gather with family and friends.

Don’t eat on the run. Liu says it’s tempting to visit a fast food restaurant when you’re traveling and time is short, especially if you’re stuck in an airport. It’s quick. It’s easy. And, it may wreak havoc on your GI system. “If eating these foods is going to trigger your IBS, be very careful,” he says. When you know it’s going to be difficult to find healthy eating out choices, plan ahead by packing food you know is safe.

Make new traditions. Are you traditionally the host for holiday gatherings? It may be that the stress of entertaining is actually triggering your IBS symptoms. Liu suggests being open to new ways of celebrating. For example, he says, have a potluck where everyone pitches in, or prepare certain types of foods (such as a one-pot meal) so you’re not stressed out trying cook that perfect turkey. “Think ahead,” Liu says, “and plan a meal that’s not so stressful. Or, choose not to be the entertainer.”

Eat smaller meals. “Frequently, IBS symptoms are set off by eating,” Liu says. “Eat smaller, frequent meals instead of one big meal.”

If you have IBS, the holidays may require a lifestyle change, Liu says. Remember, your celebrations don’t always have to revolve around food. Even if they do, with a little advanced planning and discipline you can still have a happy and stress-free holiday.

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