At the best of times, holiday stress can wreak havoc on digestive systems. This year, with the added stress and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus, including economic woes, an inability to travel, and restrictions on family gatherings, stress levels may reach an all-time high.

New research conducted by the Nourish column of WebMD, reports stress and anxiety as leading factors in why Americans consume excessive proportions of food. Physiologically, stress produces levels of cortisol in the system, increasing the body’s typical cravings for fatty, salty, and sugar-heavy foods — and adding to long-lasting gut troubles.

Marissa Jones, the Regional Director of Operations at The Center for Discovery’s Eating Disorder Division Jones told ABC News that the isolation caused by COVID-19 can cause stress and anxiety, pushing some to use food in unhealthy ways.

“A lot of times, people are using food to cope with emotions, to maybe numb out their emotions or to avoid their emotions,” Jones said. “And that’s not a helpful adaptive way to cope through this challenging time.”

Additionally, eating foods high in fat, salt, or sugar releases feel-good hormones like dopamine, which activate pleasure centers in your brain. Over time, according to the National Institutes of Health, the body may associate these pleasure sensations with certain foods, which tend to be high in fat and calories. This process may eventually override hunger regulation, encouraging people to eat for pleasure rather than hunger.

During the holidays, many Americans throw caution to the wind and pile plates high with all manner of comfort foods. In fact, few people expect to navigate holiday parties without the requisite tummy troubles: gas, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea.

But there are long-term negative effects of overeating.

To break down food, the stomach produces hydrochloric acid. When a person overeats, this acid may back up into the esophagus resulting in heartburn. Overeating — especially unhealthy foods — can take its toll on a digestive system. Digestive enzymes are only available in limited quantity, so the larger the amount of food you eat, the longer it takes to digest. Frequent overeating slows digestion allowing undigested food — now waste — to remain in the digestive tract or intestines for longer periods of time. This is where chronic conditions, including cancers, take root.

– This holiday season, experts advise Americans to be mindful about when and how they eat.
– Focus on family and friends, not solely the food.
– Do not start a big meal on an empty stomach.
– Avoid skipping meals on the big day. When hungry, we tend to overeat.
– Use a small plate and fill it once.
– Fill up your stomach with those nutrient-dense options first.
– Eat before you drink alcohol and do not substitute alcohol calories for nutrition.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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