How Holiday Overeating Affects Your Digestion

December 01, 2011

Weed-wars-nausea-250Around the holidays, we definitely change our eating patterns – and by that, I mean we typically eat a lot more! It’s during this time that there are frequent trips to the emergency room and the doctor’s office with stomach complaints. How do you know if the pains and symptoms you are having are normal? After all, as we get older, digestion does slow down and problems can occur. To understand what is normal and what is not normal, let’s review the digestive process.

How the System Works

Do you remember the GI system from health class in high school? The teacher probably told you to think of the stomach as a food processor. That’s the basic gist. The digestive system is essentially one large tube that breaks down food. And it is a pretty long - over 30 feet if you stretched it out!

Digestion starts in our mouth; from there, food particles move down our esophagus into our stomach and then to the small intestine; they’re then off to the large intestine, and finally they are pushed out from our rectum. Along the way, organs such as the liver, the gallbladder, and the pancreas get into the act, helping with digestion.  

Each organ plays a different role, so there’s potential breakdown in the process at every step. And truthfully, aging can cause some problems along the way. And eating a lot more during the holidays and different types of foods can make things worse!

Bad Eating Habits During the Holidays

We tend to eat more quickly at parties, not always chewing food properly because we’re talking and being social. Poorly chewed food can cause problems farther down – literally.

Remember that it is through contractions that food is propelled down into the stomach. Most people don’t realize that the esophagus is actually made of muscle. As we approach middle age and beyond, the muscles get weaker, the contractions are also not as powerful, and food moves more slowly through the esophagus. That can result in food particles getting stuck, especially if we’re eating a lot, eating quickly and trying new foods.

Getting Gassy After Meals

Have you been belching lately after all those holiday parties? It is caused by swallowing too much air. “Don’t we normally do that?” you may ask. Actually we don’t. Air is supposed to go down our windpipe not down our esophagus into the stomach. So belching is not normal, although it is not serious. We do it more often as we age because we might have dentures that don’t fit properly, or we may not chew our food as well as we should since we’re talking while eating. Some other causes include drinking carbonated beverages quickly – including that celebratory champagne!   

Been getting gas after all those appetizers? What’s the cause? Gas is created through the breakdown of bacteria in our intestines and expelled through our rectum. Some bacteria release a gas when being digested. Don’t panic. It’s all normal.  

Overeating and Constipation

We all get constipated, don’t we?  It’s pretty common, affecting over 50 million people a year. And as we get older, it’s more common, and seems to be more noticeable around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.  

What do I mean by constipation? Seems like a simple question but is it?! After all, do we know how many bowel movements a day or week is normal? Actually, we do. Constipation is defined as having a bowel movement fewer than three times per week.

I must tell you – half of the people that tell me they are constipated actually are not! Some people think they are constipated if they do not have a bowel movement every day. However, you don’t need to make a daily bowel movement.  The number of bowel movements you make is determined by how much you eat, what you eat, and how active you are. As long as you’re making a bowel movement three to four times a week, you’re fine. Constipation is almost always temporary. If constipation continues off/on for three months, it is definitely not normal.

When is Diarrhea Normal?

Now let’s move to the opposite of constipation - diarrhea. Diarrhea is loose, watery, and frequent stool. By definition, a person with diarrhea typically passes stool more than three times a day. Along with diarrhea, we often experience cramping and bloating and sometimes nausea.

Most diarrhea lasts only a couple of days. And getting an episode of diarrhea is normal – and it happens at every age.  It’s usually caused by stomach flu or can be from food poisoning.  Diarrhea is usually mild and goes away quickly without complications.  If you are lactose intolerant and drink milk or eat cheese, you likely will get diarrhea – but you probably already know that! At holiday parties where you don’t prepare the food, it’s easy to eat something that doesn’t agree with you. There are some circumstances where diarrhea is dangerous and not considered normal such as blood in stools or intense chronic belly pain.

Worried about an Ulcer?

Concerned about an ulcer? Would you believe that a bacterial infection in our stomach actually can cause an ulcer? When it gets into the stomach, it helps to destroy the protective layer, thus causing an ulcer to develop.

How do you know if you might have an ulcer? Typically you have symptoms. Ulcers can cause gnawing, burning pain in the upper abdomen. These symptoms frequently occur several hours following a meal. The burning sensation can also occur during the night - many patients tell me they cannot sleep it’s so intense. Still others say they are always hungry or that food feels like it is getting stuck in their throat.  Every now and then, someone notices black stools. None of these symptoms are normal. I see a lot more symptoms of ulcers during the holidays – some of it is stress-related and sometimes spicy food is causing the problem. Treatment of ulcers is pretty straightforward, so don’t delay in seeing the doctor.

Like the saying goes, the holidays are a time to “eat, drink, and be merry.” All that eating, drinking, and merriment can cause problems though, so learn what’s normal and what’s not when you start to experience some GI problems.

Got other symptoms you're concerned about? Check out Is This Normal? The Essential Guide to Aging and Beyond.

More on Stomach Issues:

Healthy Digestion

Why Does My Stomach Growl?

Ultimate Healthy Digestion Quiz


Photo Source: Thinkstock/Polka Dot

Aging And Your Eyes

November 14, 2011

Man-with-glassesHave you been holding books or the newspaper at arm’s length so you can read it more clearly?  If you’re over 40, I bet you are. The truth of the matter is that once we approach our forties, our eyes have already begun changing – sometimes normal, sometimes not-so-normal. So how do you know if the vision changes you are experiencing are serious, or just a natural part of aging? Well, you can do so by learning how aging affects our eyes.

What Really Happens

As we get older, our pupils become smaller and our field of vision decreases. The lens also becomes more rigid. As a result, our ability to focus on objects both near and far becomes more difficult. Our vision also becomes less sharp. You probably have noticed this because it’s hard to read fine print. This usually starts to occur in our forties.

You might even have needed to get a pair of reading glasses lately or been told you need bifocals – all a natural part of aging. You probably have also noticed that you need more light to read clearly as you’ve gotten older.  I’ve noticed this when I’m in a nice restaurant. The restaurant is usually dimly lit, which can provide a nice atmosphere but makes it tough to read the menu or decipher the numbers on the bill when it arrives. This is normal because as you get older, you need more light to see clearly.

But if you get headaches or your eyes seem to get tired after reading small print, you may have presbyopia.  Presbyopia is the medical term for the loss of elasticity of the lens which results in loss of sharp focus for near objects, and it is a normal part of aging. 

Nearly 111 million people in the United States have presbyopia, and that number is supposed to grow to 123 million people in by 2020. Yet only 10% of this population knows that they have this disease.

You can help correct your vision with multifocal glasses or contact lenses to help see clearly at all distances. But it will take more than just a pair of glasses: Correcting presbyopia means your brain will have to adapt to various vision correction prescriptions. Multifocal contact lenses, like AIR OPTIX, are designed to help with all stages of presbyopia and may be a valuable option for those who prefer not to wear glasses. 

Common Problems

Many middle-aged patients come to see me about a common problem called “floaters.”  This refers to the experience of seeing spots or specks that float across the visual field. This can be very scary, especially the first time it occurs.  However, it’s usually normal. To understand floaters, it’s helpful to learn about the vitreous. The vitreous is a jelly-like substance that fills the body of the eye.  It’s attached to the retina, and is typically clear.  However, as we age, it becomes less jelly-like and more water-like.  Sometimes it even detaches from the retina. The floaters are actually little clumps of the jelly-type substance, which then cast shadows.  Again, this is usually normal.  However, if the onset of floaters coincides with a flash of light, or seem to be associated with any sudden physical weakness, see your doctor, as these symptoms can indicate a retinal detachment or even a stroke.

Have you been worried that you seem to have lost some of your ability to discern the difference between colors, or different shades of the same color? Maybe when you’re at a store and take your black sweater to the register, you suddenly realize that it’s actually blue. While we don’t become color-blind as we become older, our ability to distinguish greens and blues can be affected. This is because the lens of the eye begins to yellow with age. You may have even noticed this while watching television or looking at photos – you thought it was HD but now it doesn’t look so crisp! Issues with color does not happen until after age 50, and generally does not cause major problems.  Luckily, traffic lights are red, yellow and green and not blue, yellow and green!

Sudden vision loss is never normal at any age, and needs to be evaluated by a doctor immediately. Do not wait around thinking it might get better. If vision suddenly goes dark or suddenly blurry, get to the emergency room right away.

Eye pain and red eye also need to be discussed with a physician since they typically are symptoms of a disease. Just because you get older doesn’t mean you should have pain in the eye or your eyes should be red several days in a row - that is not normal.


Want to learn more about the aging process? Check out Is This Normal? The Essential Guide to Aging.


More on Vision Problems:

Vision Problems

Refractive Vision Problems

Color Vision Test


Photo Source: Thinkstock/Goodshot


John J. Whyte, MD, MPH is the Chief Medical Expert & Vice President for Continuing Medical Education where he develops, designs and delivers health programming.








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