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Gerard E. Mullin, M.D. Headshot

Your Good Gut Guide to a Healthy New Year

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Come fall, our days and nights begin to revolve around friends, family, parties and, of course, food! Of course, by the time New Year's Day rolls around, most of us are repentant, willing to do whatever it takes to make this year the year we get and stay healthy -- only to slide back into those bad habits all too soon. Making -- and keeping -- healthy resolutions can be challenging, but even more important for people who are coping with preexisting digestive conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Fortunately, with a few key lifestyle changes, you can keep your gut healthy all year long.

1. Manage stress. It's near impossible to eliminate stress from our lives: From busy work schedules, to family obligations, to financial worries, sources of stress and anxiety are everywhere. There's a solid connection between stress and illness: Stress promotes higher cortisol levels, which have been linked to weight gain. And stress can also play a huge role in many digestive problems, particularly GERD and IBS. Research shows that anxiety, depression and stress provoke symptoms in up to 60 percent of people with IBS, and that stress management tools such as deep breathing, relaxation and hypnosis are helpful. Likewise, GERD has been linked to underlying anxiety and stress is clearly associated with worsened symptomatology. These are reasons to be more cautious of managing stress if you have GERD and or IBS.

First, be realistic about what you can accomplish, rather than being overambitious with your schedule. Consider scheduling time for a massage, a hot bath with lavender oil and soothing music, or perhaps just a long walk while stargazing or some quiet time watching a movie or reading a book. And try to fit in seven to eight hours of sleep every night. Sleep is necessary to help combat stress, boost energy and regulate appetite.

2. Eat in moderation. Perhaps the most challenging resolution for many people is making healthy food choices while avoiding splurges that pack on the pounds and cause digestive symptoms to flare. First, keep balance, variety and moderation in your eating habits. Take your time and try not to eat too fast: Slowing down and eating more mindfully helps prevent overeating. You will feel full much sooner than if you will if you race through your meals. Remember, it takes your brain 20 minutes to realize that your stomach is full. Don't bring unhealthy food into your home and -- if you do indulge in occasional snacks or sweets -- put one serving on a napkin and leave the box or bag of treats in the pantry. If the food is out of sight, it is more likely to be out of mind.

And you can make healthy food choices while still enjoying a delicious meal. Select fresh vegetables and low-fat dips before a meal, and offer fresh fruit as part of your dessert. The combination of high-fat and acidic foods (pizza, lasagna, meatballs, fajitas) is particularly notorious for aggravating heartburn. Favor lean protein sources such as turkey, which also is high in tryptophan, an amino acid that helps combat anxiety and depression. Berries are high in antioxidants and don't cause excessive spikes in blood sugar. When cooking, think about using spices that help calm the gut and aid digestion such as ginger, fennel and mint.

Think about eating nuts as a snack instead of sweets, particularly if you have IBS: Sweets can cause gas and trigger IBS symptoms. If you're worried about the high fat content of nuts, don't be. Yes, they are rich in calories, but they increase your sense of fullness rather easily. In fact, women who consume two or more handfuls of nuts per week have a slightly lower risk of obesity than those who eat nuts less frequently or not at all, according to findings from the long-running Nurses' Health Study at the Harvard School of Public Health. When it comes to dessert, choose dark chocolate for its cardioprotective and mood-enhancing benefits. Try to limit alcoholic drinks, which are calorie rich and stress the gut, and keep hydrated with water or club soda with a twist of lemon or lime instead. Choose gut-calming herbal teas (i.e. chamomile) after dinner over caffeinated beverages, which can exacerbate IBS and GERD symptoms. Balancing your food intake will help you stay more in control of your digestion.

3. Exercise. It's easy to cut back on exercise when you're busy. However, getting physical activity will not only help shed the pounds you may have gained over the holidays, but it can also help moderate stress and boost mood, which help combat IBS and GERD. You don't need to wait until the weather improves. Many join a gym as a new year's resolution only to stop going after a few weeks. Wintertime activities include skating, sledding, skiing, walking in the mall or outdoors, dancing and working out in a gym or at an exercise class. Bundle up and take a walk around the neighborhood and you'll burn 324 calories in an hour. So choose some activities that you enjoy and get moving. Try to maintain a set schedule for exercise to help boost your metabolism, mood and energy.

I hope that these health tips help you ring in the new year in good gut health.

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