Food and Drink

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

How Do I Know If the Symptoms I’m Experiencing Are Normal?

October 06, 2011


  • "How many times is normal to get up at night and go to the bathroom?” 
  • “If I’m having trouble hearing the television, am I going to go deaf?” 
  • “Is it normal to forget where you parked your car - I’m only 40!”
  • “Is it ok if my mom is taking naps during the day, or should I be concerned? She did just retire.”


These are common questions that I get from patients as they get older. And it can be challenging to know the answers when you’re not a medical professional. Yet, it is important to be able to tell the difference between what is a normal part of aging versus a disease. Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean you should be having ten different medical problems. Yes, you will have some problems such as trouble reading fine print by the time you’re 40, but you’re not going to start having a life of aches and pains just because you’re older. 


I find there are two sorts of patients – those that come in whenever they have any change in a body function, have scoured the internet and now think they have a brain tumor; and then there are those folks who rarely ever come into the office with complaints because they attribute it to “I’m just getting old.” The reality is that it is often diseases that make getting old frustrating, not the normal changes associated with aging. As we get older, too often we are embarrassed to bring up concerns to our doctors, or even get advice for our aging parents. So people needlessly live with pain, depression, bladder problems, vision problems – all the time thinking that these are normal changes, when sometimes they are not!


So I’m here to help you get some more information as to when you should be concerned about that mole on your back, and when you should say that’s just a normal part of aging.  Take the quiz, and let’s see how you do.


More on Aging:

5 Stereotypes About Aging That Aren't True

How Do My Sleeping Habits Change as I Age?

How Does Aging Affect Driving Ability?

6 Tips for Better Eye Health

July 25, 2011

Sunglasses As a physician, I find patients often overlook one of the most important aspects of their health - their vision!  During the summer, people often think about protecting their skin. But what about their eyes?  Whether you’re on the beach, walking the dog or even driving in the high-heat of summer, it’s easy to find yourself squinting as bright sunlight reflects off water, the road, sidewalks and buildings. So what can you do to protect your eyes from the sun and keep your eyes healthy all year long?  I’ve got a few tips: 

Look stylish and protect your eyes at the same time. Sunglasses can be much more than a fashion accessory - they provide protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. You can reduce your risk for some eye conditions by wearing sunglasses that block out nearly 100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B radiation. UV damage can add up over time, so make sure to start encouraging your kids to wear shades too! Be careful of those sunglasses that are only a few dollars - cheap glasses usually offer limited protection. 

Bring vision "power foods" to your next potluck.  We used to think it was just carrots that helped with vision.  Now we know that a diet that includes daily fruits and vegetables like oranges, carrots and dark leafy greens, and fish like salmon and tuna, are important for keeping your eyes healthy. Key nutrients to include in a healthy eye diet include vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, lutein and omega-3 fatty acids.

Start a conversation. If your next vacation or BBQ includes family, take some time to ask about their eye health history. Many eye conditions are actually hereditary, so knowing what other members of your family have experienced with their eyes can help you discover whether you are at higher risk for certain eye problems.

Get moving! Just like our heart and other organs of the body, our eyes need good circulation and plenty of oxygen to perform at their best. Exercise helps get your blood flowing to provide essential nutrients to your eyes. Another benefit of regular exercise? It can help keep our weight in the normal range - reducing the risk of diabetic eye disease.

Move away from the computer.  We strain our eyes by looking at screens for hours at a time both at work and at home. You can reduce computer-use eye strain by moving your computer screen at least two feet away from you, making sure your work area is properly lit to reduce any glare and taking regular breaks from looking at the screen.

Say no to smoking. Smoking is bad for your eyes and the rest of your body. Period. Research has shown that smoking is linked to an increased risk of conditions that cause blindness, including cataracts, macular degeneration and optic nerve damage.


If you follow these tips and get a yearly eye exam, you’ll be well on your way to seeing good eye health!

More on UV Safety:

How UV Radiation Works

How to Care for Your Eyes

Eating for Eye Health


Photo Source: Thinkstock/Stockbyte

Resolutions need to be from the heart, and for the heart

January 11, 2010

Oh yes, 2010 has finally arrived. The start of a new decade!  Hard to believe that many of us were worried about the "Y2K" bug just a decade ago!  Does that really seem ten years ago? Where has that time gone? Before we know it, we will be writing about 2020.

 Just as in 2000, certain traditions prevail, including the esteemed tradition known as the New Years Resolution. I bet you have made one or two...and by this point, some of us have already broken those resolutions.

My good friend, Dr. Mehmet Oz, has discussed this issue as part of the "Ultimate 20," and believes that resolutions have the best success rate when they have a personal meaning.  Specifically, he believes that people do not simply follow through on their resolutions based on what they know alone (the "factual component"); instead, they require an emotional component for the greatest success rate. So what exactly comprises the "emotional component" for successfully obtaining a New Year's resolution?

For instance, let's say you are trying to focus on removing two "vices" from your lifestyle, specifically  smoking and unhealthy diets. Already, many of us know about the need to quit smoking or follow a healthy diet. Smoking has been linked in literature with lung cancer and increased mortality. Diseases such as hypertension and diabetes can result, in part, from an unhealthy diet that is high in salt and sugar. Surely the literature proclaims a need to change your lifestyle, but one is often left pondering the question- "what is in it for me besides some academic findings from literature?" And somebody always knows somebody who smokes and seems fine.

The answer is simple- other people are depending on you and your attainment of these New Year Resolutions! When you know a spouse, dear friend, or significant other wants you to quit smoking and improve your diet, this strikes at your emotions. You certainly don't want to let them down; of course they believe in you and they will certainly be there for support! So this embodies the "emotional support." Facts are good to know, but they do not always have a personal touch!

But of course, training for this lifestyle modification will not be easy. In light of this challenge, Dr. Oz mentions that the pathway to better health is similar to a marathon. If you are aiming for a successful completion- you need to keep on a constant training regimen. You cannot start one day and then stop a few days later.  Of course, similar to an exercise program, if you have someone who is ready to "practice" with you on that "marathon" to fulfill your New Year's resolution, it makes achieving and maintaining your goals all that much easier.

So, when feeling that your New Year's resolutions are somehow unobtainable, think of Dr. Oz and his philosophy. Don't just think of only yourself, think of the benefits you will give for others!  Think of the way that achieving your goals will help both you and your special team of support! Here's to a great 2010 for all of you and to making sure that you both accomplish your New Year's resolutions and maintain them going forward!

Sleep—Too Much of a Good Thing?

January 08, 2010

I realize that everyone is talking this month about the need to get more sleep. With the
holiday season over and busy work days back upon us, we are flooded with messages
urging us to get sleep despite the numerous time constraints of our daily lives. And I
have even written in the past to sleep better.

It is true that too little sleep is bad for your health – it can cause a heart attack, it can
make you gain weight, as well as increase your risk for cancer and even make you die
prematurely. But what about the flip slide – is it possible to get too much sleep? And
what counts as “too much”?

A recent article in the Journal of Sleep Research looked at the association between the
number of hours we sleep and the possible health risks. After looking at the results from
over 20 other research studies, researchers discovered that adults who sleep on average
more than 9 hours per night experienced more health problems such as obesity and stroke
than those who got a restful 7-8 hours. Some scientists believe that too much sleep is
actually more dangerous to our health than too little sleep.

Now I’m not talking about those of us try to “catch up” on sleep on the weekends, trying
to make up for the nights we sleep too little. (And I might point out there’s no such thing
as “catching up on sleep.”!) The exact mechanism for the increased health problems is
not known but some think longer sleep leads to less exposure to daylight, as well as lower
levels of beneficial stress. That’s right…some stress can be beneficial.

 I often find that when patients come in complaining of too much sleep that there is often
an underlying problem. Often, they are depressed and don’t have an interest in getting
out of bed. Depression is often under-diagnosed and too much sleep can be an early sign.
Luckily there are good therapies – both with and without drugs to fight depression.
Others actually are equating the number of hours in bed with sleep, when in fact they are
getting too little sleep due to restlessness and sometimes chronic pain. And if you are
sleeping during the day, that could be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea.

I also want to point out that as we get older, we do not need more sleep. I can’t tell you
how many patients come in with elderly parents and complain they sleep all day. Well,
something is wrong there and should be evaluated. As we get older, the quality of our
sleep decreases but the total amount of sleep should stay the same --- 7-8 hours.

Like many of you, I do like to sleep! One of the reasons I did not go into surgery or
anesthesiology is that I don’t like to get up before 6 am! I do recognize, however, that
developing a good sleep regimen is important for good health. So like many others have
told you, establish a regular sleep time in the evening and wake-up time in the morning
and stick with it every day, including weekends. Sleeping longer on weekends actually
messes up our biologic clocks. It’s only natural that there are going to be days when you

sometimes get more, and sometimes get less. But aim for 7-8 hours of sleep a night, and
you will do well! Like a lot of things, too much sleep isn’t good for you!

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








stay connected

our sites