Surviving the Holidays with IBS

We are just a few days away from Thanksgiving and so we're officially entering the holiday season! Though the holidays are a time of joy and family connection for many, it can also be a time of anxiety and isolation for those of us with digestive issues and food intolerances. Our celebrations are so centered around food, but sadly these times that are supposed to be happy occasions can to lead to feelings of alienation for those of us with special dietary needs.

If you have IBS, thankfully there are things you can do to make the holidays more enjoyable and minimize flareups.

Making Choices

Sometimes it feels like we have to choose between either feeling sorry for ourselves and nibbling on carrot sticks while everyone else stuffs their faces, or saying "Screw it" and giving up, eating everything in sight and perhaps spending the next day (or two) on the toilet. The good news is, there are other options between these extremes.

If you're hosting the holiday, it's of course much easier to make a lot of low FODMAP dishes (seriously, you can make low FODMAP dishes that taste like the real deal, please see my previous post!). If you're going to someone else's home, even if they insist you don't, definitely bring some low FODMAP dishes to share that you know you tolerate well.

If you're comfortable enough with whoever is hosting, you can let him/her know that you're on a special diet for your digestive issues and explain that you'll mostly have to stick with your own foods. I know we all worry about hurting someone's feelings by turning down their food so you can just be open about it. Most of the time, people will want to do their best to accommodate you.

What to do about Aunt Martha

Unfortunately though, we all have those people who just don't get it and aren't exactly sensitive to our needs. Let's say it's Aunt Martha who is hosting, and you know from experience that she's likely to push a plethora of high FODMAP foods on you. A few techniques you can try:

1) You can explain to her privately that certain foods make you very sick so it's best that you stay away from them.

2) You might tell her that you're on a "medically prescribed diet for digestive issues" or "my doctor put me on this special diet for my stomach problems" and this often drives the point home. It sounds more official than saying "I can't eat this cause it makes me sick". I believe that anyone who cares about you would feel awful if they knew the food they served you made you very sick.

3) You can also just not make a big deal about it and refrain from saying anything if that feels more comfortable to you. And truthfully, most of the time, everyone will be too busy eating and socializing to critique what's on your plate.

A Self-Empowered Thanksgiving Remember, you're in charge of what you put in your body. If you feel you will die from "FOMO" (Fear of Missing Out), and must have a slice of your grandmother's apple pie, then go right ahead. Try to enjoy every bite of it without fear though, try to savor all of the flavors. It's always possible that you'll do fine with it. We can talk ourselves into having a food reaction so try to avoid negative self-talk if you eat something you don't typically tolerate. And if you do react, that's ok, don't beat yourself up, just take care of yourself in whatever way comforts you during a flare up. Bring your toolkit of remedies that work for you, whether Pepto, Immodium, Tums, Gas-x, prescription IBS meds etc.

I know this is not socially acceptable, but you are actually allowed to opt out of a holiday if it brings too much emotional stress for you. I've heard from people who have very dramatic, stressful, and unsupportive family dynamics, in which case it might be in your own best interest to chill at home on the couch with your dog for a change. Just sayin'.

Even though I'm lucky to have a supportive family, they are far away. So I'll be having a quiet, relaxing holiday with just a few loved ones because traveling across the country during the holidays is very stressful on my body.

On a practical level, since FODMAPs have to do with thresholds, it's helpful to eat low FODMAP early in the day if you'll be eating your big holiday meal later in the day. This will keep your threshold low so you might be able to get away with having a few high FODMAP foods later on. Also try to eat a small meal or snack beforehand, so you'll be less likely to over-stuff yourself, like everyone else tends to do on these holidays! Overeating is often a recipe for an IBS flare. Also manage stress, get good sleep, stay well hydrated, and limit alcohol and caffeine to keep IBS under the best control.

An Attitude of Gratitude

When one of my clients recently told me how much fun she was having planning a low FODMAP Thanksgiving for herself and her family, it really made my day. Her attitude of positivity and joy around this process is what struck me about it.

A big part of surviving holidays and social outings has to do with your own attitude about it. For example, I like to use statements like "I choose not to eat that" versus "I can't eat that." There's more power in making "I choose" statements as opposed to "I can't" do something statements. Just try it and see the difference.

On a final note, be sure to find things to look forward to this holiday season outside of food. Maybe seeing your aunt's new puppy, spending time with your nieces and nephews, listening to your dad's terrible jokes (that he's already told you a million times), watching holiday movies, having some days off work? Whatever it is for you, try to find some gratitude and fun in these coming holidays!