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Holiday Overeating--Keeping the Gut Healthy

The holidays have long been known for feasting, overeating and creating special dishes only made during the holidays, the ones our mothers and grandmothers were known for baking from scratch. Delicious treats and meals are a part of the warmth and excitement of the holiday season and one just about everyone who celebrates Christmas looks forward to. It's what helps make this time of year so special for most Americans.

Unfortunately, it's also these very treats and rich foods that cause many Americans problems with their digestion. It's no surprise that TV runs continual ads at this time of year for antacids, digestive aids and medications that relieve indigestion, heartburn and gas.

As many as 70 million Americans are affected by digestive disorders and many more experience gas, gastric discomfort and bloating that fall short of being diagnosed as an actual disease but are usually the harbingers of an underlying or developing digestive problem. As researchers have begun to understand the critical role the gut plays in our overall health, it's become abundantly clear that it's now time we all started paying much better attention to our guts. Digestive problems have become the proverbial "canary in the coal mine" as a warning signal that all may not be well with the rest of the body.

The human gut affects many other aspects of health, from the ability of the immune system to resist infection to joint health, healthy weight, risk of diabetes, ability to handle stress, mood, memory, autoimmune disease, skin problems (think, acne), the health of our arteries, the brain and the heart.

The gut is home to trillions of microbes (i.e., bacteria) and this giant collection of microscopic organisms is collectively known as the microbiome, and is central to good health. It literally operates like an organ, only it's not made of tissue in the body--it's made up of microorganisms. The microbes have different functions to keep the body in balance.

For example, if your microbiome is in good shape, it produces vitamins B12 and K if they're in short supply and helps to regulate other processes to use food efficiently. If all is well with our gut, it helps the body to resist colds and flu, make the right amount of serotonin and other critical neurotransmitters, maintain a healthier body weight and control levels of inflammation that underlie age-related diseases.

Avoiding antibiotics whenever possible is an important step in regaining or maintaining good gut health. They are powerful killers of good gut bacteria and their affects can last up to a year in the gut unless steps are taken to correct the problem. When it's absolutely necessary to take antibiotics then consider adding probiotics at least two hours apart from taking the antibiotic.

Prebiotics are also very helpful in restoring balance in the gut and these substances can be found in certain types of fiber. Foods with these types of fiber include asparagus, onions, garlic, leeks, raw honey, jicama, barely ripe bananas, sprouted whole grains (and breads made from these grains), raw seeds and fresh berries of all types.

What we have recently come to understand is that microbes rule our health in ways we are just beginning to discover. White sugar and flour products, such as the treats made during the holidays, are particularly hard on our guts and therefore our overall health. Consuming these treats in small amounts is recommended and for as short a time period as possible. We can all enjoy the special desserts and meals made during this wonderful time of year but we should also keep them in small amounts and get back to eating more healthfully as soon as the season is over. Our health depends on it.

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