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There's no holiday for our digestive systems this Christmas!

December 2019

Man holding stomach
Good digestion is fundamental to our wellbeing

With the shops full of fabulous food and wonderful treats, it is incredibly hard not to over indulge at this time of year.

The trouble is that, as we become older, we might increasingly find that after a lovely meal we begin to suffer from discomfort and even pain in the stomach and upper abdomen. This can be because our systems simply don’t work as efficiently as they did when we were younger and our digestive system is struggling to cope with an extra large, extra heavy, spicy or fatty meal.

The symptoms of indigestion can vary a lot, from mild discomfort in the upper part of the abdomen to a quite severe pain which can even go through to the back.  Sometimes you can feel a burning sensation rising up in the chest while others can just feel they are over full and generally uncomfortable. It all depends on what you have eaten, how much and your own individual systems.

Generally over eating will cause the stomach to expand beyond its normal size to cope with all that food. This results in it pushing against other organs in the area, making you feel uncomfortable. This expansion is also why your clothes can feel tight.

Also, with more than usual food to digest, the organs will have to work harder, secreting extra hormones and enzymes to break the food down. One of the big problems from over eating is the hydrocholoric acid that the stomach produces. Overeating, or eating high fat foods such as pizza or cheeseburgers, can cause this hydrochloric acid to rise up into the oesophagus, resulting in the “burn” aspect of heartburn.

Interestingly, when you overeat your metabolism can speed up as it tries to burn off that sudden intake of extra calories. This can cause a temporary feeling of being hot, sweaty or even dizzy.

Having an unusually big meal can even impact your sleep. The circadian clock which affects our sleep and wake cycles, also impacts on our hunger hormone levels which rise and fall throughout the day. Overeating can upset this rhythm, making it harder to sleep through the night.

One specific aspect which can result from over indulgence is more likely with age... and that is acid reflux. This is when the muscular band at the top of the stomach (the sphincter) that normally keeps the stomach tightly closed is under too much pressure. This band can get weaker as we age, not tightening or closing properly after we have eaten; and having a really big meal can put extra pressure on it, allowing it to open enough for acid to escape from the stomach and rise up to irritate the oesophagus. If this happens on a very regular basis and is not checked, this can develop into serious problems.

Overall our digestive system needs taking care of and it is worth noting that as we age, it probably needs more care!  Certainly, when you want to counteract the odd over consumption, taking normal indigestion tablets can really help; and the more recent development of alginates, which form a gel to float on top of the stomach contents preventing acid from rising up to the oesophagus, are also useful. But the digestive system is fundamental to our well being and too much abuse could start to cause long term changes.

It is probably a good thing that Christmas, with all its fabulous festive foods, only comes once a year!

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