Gluttony is as much a part of Thanksgiving as turkey and family. After all, what other holiday has so many delicious side dishes and desserts? Not taking advantage of that bounty of food would be a wasted opportunity. But all that eating can often lead to unpleasant side effects, leaving you squirming on the couch in discomfort. We spoke to a gastroenterologist and an internist for tips on how to mitigate those stomach issues after a Thanksgiving feast.
This Is Your Body On Too Much Food
Before you learn how to make yourself feel better after consuming too much, it’s important to understand what’s going on in your gastrointestinal system.
“It’s pretty mechanical,” Arefa Cassoobhoy, the senior medical director at WebMD, told HuffPost. “When you’re overeating, your stomach is expanding larger than usual. Because of that pressure, it can feel uncomfortable as it pushes up against other organs.”
But don’t worry, the gut is super adaptable. “Your stomach has an amazing capacity to stretch and allow you to consume more food,” said Rajeev Jain, a partner at Texas Digestive Disease Consultants. “By some studies, the stomach can increase its volume threefold (editor’s note: some say it’s up to fivefold!), like filling a balloon up with air ― or in this case, solids or liquids.”
Your stomach and brain aren’t communicating as efficiently as you’d hope when you’re eating a big meal. “When you overeat at Thanksgiving, by the time your body sends a signal back to your brain that you’re getting full, you’ve been consuming [that entire time],” Jain said. “We tend to overdo it, and then the sensation of feeling stretched and full is uncomfortable.”
Cassoobhoy explained that when your stomach expands, that end result can be heartburn, constipation, gas and bloating, all of which happens because the food you ate is taking its sweet time going through your gut and getting digested. But everyone manifests those symptoms differently, so your type of discomfort could be different from the person next to you at the table.
How To Avoid Discomfort In The First Place
Sometimes the best advice is also the simplest. “Don’t overeat,” Jain said. If you’re reading this and you’ve already filled up on turkey and stuffing, you can skip this section and read about what to do after the meal! If not, here are a few more tips to stop from being overfilled.
“If you’re eating a large amount of food, spreading it over time would be easier on your body than having it in one quick load,” Cassoobhoy said. “There’d be time for the food to slowly exit your stomach and enter your intestines and colon.”
Jain warned that this doesn’t mean you can eat huge portions all day and be fine, but that eating a moderate amount of food throughout the day may help. “As long as you’re controlling [your portions], you’d have less likelihood [of discomfort] than someone who waits to eat all day and then binges from 4-8 p.m.”
Cassoobhoy sang the praises of drinking water throughout the day to mitigate any gassy or bloated feelings post-meal. “The earlier you drink water during the day, the better,” she said. “Even sipping water slowly after dinner will help dilute that big bulk of food you ate, and make you less likely to get constipated. If you’ve had a high salt meal, your body will use that water to process and flush the salt out.”
Keep in mind that if you love sparkling water, carbonation can make gas and bloating worse for some people, she said.
Make smart choices at the dinner table
It’s tough to pass on sampling absolutely everything on the Thanksgiving table. But you can still have a fantastic meal without going overboard.
“A little conscious effort to hold back can make a huge difference to not feeling overstuffed and sick at the end,” Cassoobhoy said. She suggested being selective with what’s on your plate. Instead of digging into a dairy-rich casserole, try plain veggies with a light vinaigrette. And you can also follow these helpful tips. “Use a smaller plate,” she said. “Eat slowly. Focus on the company and tasting your food instead of [getting] larger portions.”
There’s nothing wrong with a little pie at Thanksgiving. But fruit has fiber, which could be the key to helping you feel better after the meal. Jain explained that eating fruit high in fiber and low in acidity (like melons or bananas) could help reduce the chance of acid reflux. “If you eat a fatty meal, your stomach empties slower,” he said. “And so your meal has a greater chance of backing up and coming into your esophagus, which would give you reflux or regurgitation. Whereas if you have a lean meal with fruits and vegetables that are not acidic and are more fibrous, they’re more likely to empty the stomach better.”
What To Eat And Drink After The Meal
Before we dive into ways to help yourself feel better after the meal, both doctors noted that there’s only so much you can do after the fact. And while we’d love for there to be a silver bullet to mitigate those unpleasant symptoms, you’ll have to find what works for you.
Many Indian restaurants offer fennel seeds to customers on the way out, and there’s a solid reason for it. “The theory is that fennel seeds, peppermint, licorice and foods like that make the lower esophageal sphincter ― the muscle that meets the stomach at the end of the esophagus ― relaxed,” Jain said. “If you’re really full, it lets you belch a little bit and get some gas off, relieving the pressure.”
Relaxing the esophageal sphincter is also behind Jain’s suggestion of sipping peppermint tea or sucking on a peppermint candy. Peppermint oil is also the main ingredient in the over-the-counter medical food IBgard, which is designed to help with irritable bowel syndrome. “It contains peppermint oil, and I’ll tell my patients to try it for upper abdominal discomfort,” he said. “I’ve gotten good feedback.”
If you often feel bloated after eating too much, this is not the solution for you, as Jain said that most people tend to swallow more air when they’re chewing gum. That’s a recipe for feeling even more bloated.
If you’re suffering from acid reflux, however, gum could be a solid option. “When you chew gum, that makes you salivate,” Jain noted. “Your saliva has bicarbonate in it, and it’s one of the first lines of defense from acid for the esophagus. The saliva buffers any acidity that might be coming up or down.”
Sit upright or go for a walk
Heartburn sufferers should heed this advice from Cassoobhoy. “If you want to avoid heartburn, one of the best things you can do is stay upright,” she said. “If you lie down quickly after a large meal, you’re more likely to allow that food to roll up the esophagus. Staying upright is important for at least a few hours after you eat.”
Jain said that “walking makes you more likely to enhance what we call gastric emptying or stomach emptying. Go walk around, it’s good for you!”