With the change of leaves marking the beginning of the Fall season, (well, in Arizona it is the greening of the dessert and below 100 degree days), comes the dreaded start of the Holiday Season. Halloween—lots of candy; Thanksgiving—lots of turkey, stuffing and desserts; and then of course, Christmas with more food, more desserts, and holiday parties—need I say more.
The Effect of Overeating on Your Immune System
Besides the risk of overeating, indigestion, and holiday weight gain, comes the effect of poor eating on your digestive system itself and therefore, on your immune system. Remember, the intestinal track is the gateway to our bodies—it is how nutrition and fluids get into us, while at the same time, keeping toxins we ingest, bad fats in our food, chemicals, and virus and bacteria form getting in. Maintaining a health intestinal lining is critical to staying healthy. In contrast, having poor intestinal health can increase the risk of heart disease, chronic inflammatory conditions and infections to name a few. So what can we do to maintain a healthy digestive system and our overall health during this challenging season while at the same time enjoy some of the indulgences? Well, the most obvious is moderation, a few pieces of Halloween candy won’t hurt you but a week’s worth of binging on it might, and here is why.
Let’s face it, no one, except us crazy, obsessed workout types, sit and snack on a piece of broiled chicken, let alone serve it to our holiday guests. The fact is that for most people, sugar and fats taste good—the more of it, the better. Hence, the popularity of ice cream, doughnuts, cakes and pies, Frappuccino, and yes, CANDY.
Processed Sugar vs.Complex Carbs
While most of us are aware of the downsides of too much fat intake, people tend to give processed sugar a free ride. Glucose, which is the form of sugar are bodies use, comes from simple carbs such as sucrose and fructose in our diet. Immediately upon hitting the intestines, even before the blood stream, sugars stimulate insulin secretion and other hormones such as from the adrenal glands. This can result in a rapid uptake of the sugar from the blood, followed by a craving for more as the levels fall. Repeated cycles explain why we keep going back for more and more. This repetitive hormonal stimulation or overload eventually depletes the levels and mutes the response. Unfortunately, a proper insulin response, sugar metabolism, and adrenal function –i.e. stress hormones, is necessary not only for overall health and well-being, but for athletic performance. This is why more complex carbs which provide a steady release of energy, i.e. glucose, are preferable and have been shown to both suppress hunger and over eating, and enhance athletic performance.
In addition to the metabolic derangement associated with excessive sugar intake, sugar has a profound effect on the intestinal track and digestion. Overgrowth of Candida (yeast) and a shift away from normal intestinal flora has been attributed to sugar intake. Furthermore, the hormonal changes in response to sugar can also affect secretion of necessary stomach acid and decrease gut integrity resulting in more transmigration of harmful microbes and toxins. Compounded with the need for more minerals and vitamins which are used up in sugar metabolism, a compromised intestinal track will further contribute to nutritional deficiencies.
Maintaining Gut Health is Critical for Athletes
Not only is intestinal integrity important to maintain this important barrier to microorganisms, but many if not most of our nutrients require a healthy intestinal lining for absorption. This includes not only protein and carbohydrates, but water, electrolytes, minerals and vitamins. Poor lining means poor absorption, poor absorption means nutrient deficiency. Not a good thing for anyone and especially not a good thing for athletes. Athletes require high intake of calories, vitamins, electrolytes and minerals due to the increased calorie burning (an enzymatic process), and losses through sweat. This can overload the ability for a compromised or unhealthy gut to keep up. Maintaining optimum gut integrity and health is critical for athletes to continue to perform and recover. Many endurance athletes supplement with a mix of digestive enzymes such as amylase, cellualse, and bromelain, in addition to taking probiotics.
Starting the holiday season with a healthy gut and healthy immune system is important to weather the storm as you will. Think of it as training for a marathon so you can handle the increase distance. Train or prepare your intestines for this sudden change in diet and exposure to these yummy, but often not good for you foods. Probiotics are a key in maintaining intestinal health and have been shown to decrease the incidence of illness and bad cholesterol. Whether by supplements or food like yogurt, probiotics should be a routine part of your regiment year round.
Healthy Gut Tips for the Holidays
- Do not replace your raw and unprocessed fruits and vegetables for candy. Many fruits such as Pineapple and Papaya contain important digestive enzymes that help breakdown protein for absorption.
- Maintain fiber and water intake Making sure to get enough fiber will also help prevent constipation from low-fiber low transit time foods such as candy which often contains pectin. Also, continue to drink plenty of water.
- Eat well-balanced meals with protein and complex carbs. This should decrease your craving for all the treats around.
- Exercise to help burn those extra calories Also, remind yourself daily why you try and eat healthy.
- Try health alternatives like fruit (even dried is okay, but watch the overly sweetened type).
- Enjoy everything in moderation. You do not need to try every single dessert or finish all of your plate.
Article By Jeff Pearl, MD
Dr. Jeff is a trained general, pediatric cardiac, and transplant surgeon. Nutrition has always been an important concern for surgeons in regards to patients healing from surgery. He has had a longstanding interest in health, nutrition and supplements, and been an advocate of the use of nutrition and supplements in the hospital setting to aid in his patient’s recovery. He has a history of basic science and clinical research and a keen ability to interpret studies and statistics to determine their true significance. He is the father and step-father to several teenage athletes and knows firsthand the challenges they face in balancing their time, eating habits and use of supplements. He is adamant about trying to educate our youth about better nutrition. Dr. Jeff recognizes the challenges that healthcare faces and the need for people to take charge of their own health and disease prevention. He loves being outside and is one of those crazy few seen hiking or biking in the middle of the day in summer.