The decorations are up, the music’s playing, and kitchens are busy as people prepare for holiday celebrations. But if you have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), this time of year can feel like anything but a party.
Holiday gatherings often feature indulgent food and drinks, which can trigger flare-ups of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, the two types of IBD. And common IBD symptoms are unwelcome guests: persistent diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloody stool, and fatigue.
“Anyone can have digestive issues, but someone who has IBD may have a lower threshold,” says Jamie Tigner, a physician assistant in Summit Heath’s Gastroenterology department. She adds that knowing your triggers while focusing on moderation and variety can help keep symptoms out in the cold.
Whether you’re managing your IBD or hosting someone who is, here are some tips for keeping the holidays happy and discomfort-free.
Tips for managing your IBD
- Make a list, and check it twice. Jamie says holiday travel can make it easy to forget your medications, so make sure they’re on your packing list. If air travel is on the itinerary, pack medication in your carry-on. Sticking to your treatment plan can help you achieve and maintain remission.
- Know what’s naughty and nice. Because IBD affects people differently, there’s no one-size-fits-all diet. However, by working with your IBD specialist, you can discover a meal plan that works for you. You may even want to offer to bring a dish or two that you know you can tolerate.
Jamie recommends well-balanced options that are low-fat, low-sugar, and nutrient-rich. She advises caution with fatty, greasy, acidic, and spicy foods, which can cause discomfort for people with and without IBD. Practice moderation and portion control whenever you add food to your plate. “You will want to partake in your favorite recipes from growing up,” she says. “If you know it’s something you can tolerate, it’s OK to give it a try.”
- Stay hydrated. Reach for water instead of sugary sodas and juices. Jamie also advises knowing your limits with caffeine and alcohol. There are nonalcoholic beers, wines, and spirits to consider instead.
- Give the gift of self-care. “There are five times as many nerves in the GI tract than the spinal cord,” says Jamie. While the link between stress and IBD continues to be explored, there is no doubt that stress management can have a positive effect on the body. The holidays can be hectic, but making time for activities like taking a walk, practicing yoga or meditation, and getting plenty of sleep is a gift for your overall wellness.
Tips for supporting loved ones with IBD
- Make meals inclusive. Ask your guests in advance if anyone has dietary restrictions so you can work to accommodate them. Or take your guest up on their offer to bring a dish of their own. Jamie encourages variety in dishes and their presentation. For example, offer lean protein like fish or chicken in addition to beef. Roasted vegetables can be a healthy and safer alternative to green bean casserole. Also, provide toppings like gravy on the side. “Separate raw ingredients so your guest can feel more included,” she says.
- Don’t forget the kids. While IBD most commonly occurs in people between the ages of 15 and 30, children can also be impacted. Be aware of cues a child’s parents will look for. “Sometimes it’s challenging for kids to express what they’re feeling,” says Jamie. “Do they look well? Are they playing with other kids?”
- Practice empathy. IBD is a chronic condition that can be extremely uncomfortable and stressful at times. Be understanding when a guest turns down a certain drink or dish you’ve prepared or doesn’t clean their plate.
IBD affects an estimated 3 million people in the U.S., and living with IBD involves paying attention to what you eat. By being prepared and knowing your boundaries, you can focus on the good company of family and friends instead of what’s on your plate.
Summit Health gastroenterologists specialize in evaluating and treating Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. If you need additional advice or treatment, make an appointment with a physician.