Holiday Eating: Impact on the Digestive System

People enjoying a meal at a table with glasses raised.

Published December 14, 2022

With the holiday season upon us, there is no doubt that many people have a change in their eating habits.

Between family dinners, holiday parties and other cultural celebrations, great food – and more of it – seems to be the rule.

At this time of year, there are many foods available that people don’t indulge in throughout the year. Many of these foods have sentimental, familial, or cultural significance.

While they definitely add to that holiday feeling, they may also add to some unintended health impacts, especially to the digestive system.

What holiday eating habits could cause changes?

  • Eating too much in one sitting
  • Eating foods higher in fat and sugar
  • Drinking alcohol

What types of issues could develop from holiday eating?

Acid reflux

Or it’s more chronic cousin, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).

“This is the movement of food and liquids from the stomach back up into the esophagus,” says Steven Schwaitzberg, MD, president of UBMD Surgery and chair of the Department of Surgery at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “At the point where the esophagus joins the stomach, there's a valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). If this valve works poorly or is overwhelmed by a large amount of food in the stomach, reflux occurs. Alcohol and coffee further weaken the valve and make all of us more prone to experiencing reflux.”

This causes the sensation of heartburn, which according to Schwaitzberg, is well named since these symptoms can be at times indistinguishable from cardiac pain. “Any pain in the chest that's not easily and readily managed with some antacids should be evaluated urgently and in person by medical professional.”  

Schwatizberg cautions not to be alarmed right away: “In fact, all of us have reflux a little bit. Not to worry if you experience this occasionally.”

If you’re prone to reflux there's a few things that you can do to make this holiday season a little more's survivable.

  • Try to avoid eating large meals late and before you go to bed. Leaving a large amount of food in your stomach then laying down is a set up for waking up in the middle the night with reflux.
  • Late-night alcohol and coffee makes you more prone to reflux
  • Sleep on your left side
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing to avoid added pressure
  • Sleep on an incline with your head raised
  • Take antacids as needed and according to its direction

Over-the-counter antacids aren’t meant as long-term treatment.

If the reflux continues and it can’t be managed at home, Dr. Schwaitzberg advises that if it’s persistent pain, it needs to be sorted from a cardiac issue: “Going to the emergency room and having a cardiac examination is the safest thing to do. If the cardiac examination is normal, then your doctors will review medication that may be more effective than what you have been using at home.”

If you’re worried about going to an emergency department for what could be GERD, Dr. Schwaitzberg says “better safe than sorry … it's better to have hurt pride than a hurt heart.”

Whether during the holiday season or not, anyone experiencing long-standing reflux should see a medical professional for a careful evaluation.

“In particular men over 55 represent the fastest growing population found to have esophageal cancer,” says Schwaitzberg. “If you or your loved one fall into this category, don't hesitate to get seen.”

Schwaitzberg recommends seeing one of UBMD Surgery’s upper intestinal specialists to be certain that a malignant or pre-cancerous condition does not exist.

“Early treatment leads to better outcomes.”

Gallstones/Gallbladder issues

Patients with gallstones potentially go many years without any symptoms at all. “However, the gallbladder squeezes in response to fatty meals and thus it is not that uncommon during this holiday season for people to experience right, upper quadrant pain (upper mid-abdominal pain) this time of year in part because of the increased exposure to all the yummy food that unfortunately contains a lot of fat.”

When to worry? “Most the time this pain is self-limited and goes away in a few hours but if it persists or is associated with fever nausea or vomiting, then this should be evaluated in the emergency room,” says Schwaitzberg.

If experiencing pain, you can try one or more of the following to relieve gallbladder pain:

  • Consider sleeping on your left side. Your gallbladder is on the right side, so it may help to avoid adding pressure to that region.
  • Try applying a warm compress to the area
  • Drink peppermint tea
  • Take a magnesium supplement

If pain persists, an evaluation by a medical professional is recommended. They may be able to prescribe medications to alleviate some of the pain, but surgical intervention may be needed.

For a holiday celebration, if you’re likely to be having greasy foods, high-fat foods or spicy foods, try to avoid those types of foods for the days leading up to and after the event. This can help reduce the stress on the gallbladder and reduce the likelihood of pain and inflammation.


With eating more, people may find themselves constipated.

Constipation usually occurs when stool remains in the colon (large intestine) for too long, and the colon absorbs too much water from the stool, causing it to become hard and dry.

Usually, this can be treated at home with the general over-the-counter remedies. Drink plenty of fluids, stay active to keep the bowels moving (even a little walking can do wonders!) and introduce some high-fiber foods into your meals to help get things back on track.

Staying hydrated can help, but is not a cure-all, according to Schwaitzberg. “Getting dehydrated forces the colon to pull more water out of your food and can make your constipation worse.”