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5 Ways to Make the Holidays More Stressful

Stress and rich food can alter our microbiota.

Key points

  • Holiday foods are typically full of sugar and fat, which wreak havoc on gut microbes.
  • Stress affects your gut microbes, and your gut microbes affect your stress.
  • Alcohol is bad for gut microbes and may contribute to inflammation and stressful arguments.

A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety. –Aesop

The holidays take a toll.
Source: triocean/iStock

Ah, the holidays are upon us! Such a relaxing and carefree time. We get to spend some quality time with our creepy uncle and mischievous cousins. But it isn’t just these external influences that stress us out. We definitely bring some of it on ourselves. Amazingly, over the past decade, we’ve discovered that many of these self-inflicted wounds start in our gut, with billions of tiny microbes. To see how it works, I’ve arranged the major triggers in reverse order of their potential for damage. Eliminating any of these can help, but none are easy to avoid.

5. Sit and Watch Sports.

When I was a youngster, we used to take a football or a frisbee outside and actually run around a bit. We played badminton, badly. We never thought of ourselves as athletes, but at least we got a little winded. That stirred our microbes into action, where they helped to lower inflammation.

Victoria Sanborn and John Gunstad of Kent State University point out that exercise prevents hypertension, improves vascular function, promotes the growth of nerve cells, and modulates insulin levels. But it also helps your gut microbes fight inflammation, reducing stress.

Gunstad says, “Scientists are just starting to understand the many ways in which physical-activity-related changes to the gut microbiome might protect the brain.” Inflammation may be the most important aspect of the exercise-gut-brain connection.

Today, our first holiday exercise is typically jabbing the remote control. The game lights up the TV and we plop down with some healthy snacks involving Velveeta and corn products and let the blood pool in our feet. Sadly, common holiday activities like jumping to conclusions, running a bath, pumping soap, or stretching a metaphor are not considered exercise.

4. Drink to Excess

It often seems like the main point of a holiday party is to drink. We are spending time with relatives and hopefully some friends, and alcohol is the universal social ointment. If you’ve already given up the demon booze, good for you and your microbes. For the rest of you devil-be-damned partiers, listen up: Alcohol is not a health food. I know, just like you, I’ve eagerly read the latest articles about how red wine is good for you, but it is always a bit of a downer when you realize the study was paid for by the wine industry.

Alcohol can kill bacteria, but sadly those are usually your good bacteria. The ones that are most resistant to booze are often pathogenic, and they proliferate. If you persist in feeding pathogens, they can knock your gut permanently off balance. That can lead to inflammation, which, if you’ve been following along, is bad for you.

3. Avoid Veggies

Finally, dinner is served, and we get a chance to mop up some of that alcohol. So, we pile up the steamed beans and broccoli. Just kidding! We head straight for the mashed potatoes and dressing. What few veggies we have are laced with sugar, marshmallows, tons of butter, and cream. Holiday veggies are actually in the dessert class, carefully crafted to negate any possible benefit.

Honestly, there’s not a lot that can be done about this. When was the last time you went to a holiday party with proper veggies? Maybe, if you’re lucky, there will be a few raw veggies on a crudités tray. Of course, you are then supposed to dunk them into some deliriously caloric dip, again negating the health quotient.

2. Get into Arguments

Now that we’ve all settled down to dinner, it’s a good time to talk about religion and politics. We do this like moths flying into a flame: We know it’s wrong, but we can’t seem to help ourselves. The creepy uncle has even more conspiracy theories than last year, and the kids are being sucked into his improbable tales, told with conviction and drama. The responsible adults see their kids being indoctrinated by the craziness and start to shout him down.

Stress can affect your gut microbes, and all the derangements of the day so far have put a strain on them. But your gut microbes can play a surprising role in your mood, adding to your stress. A vicious cycle starts to spin up. Arguments at the table make your gut ache and make you anxious — making your gut ache even more. Of course, our interpretation of that anxiety is that we need some dessert.

1. Eat a Lot of Desserts

We are down to the most important of the holiday stressors, namely sweets. Sugar feeds pathogens that live in your small intestines. They are not your friends. They are more like drug dealers. When they get that spike of sugar, they produce neurochemicals including dopamine, filling you with a rush of short-lived happiness. That’s why your normally dependable brain tells you that you need a second slice of pie.

Sugar is not a normal part of the human diet. Glazed donuts did not roll across the ancient savannah. But sugar cane and sugar beets are now the most important crops in the land, and sugar is king. The pathogens that sugar feeds can eat into our flesh and cause a leaky gut. When that happens, toxins and bacteria can make it into your bloodstream where they have easy entry to every organ in your body. Inflammation is the source of almost all chronic diseases. It adds to your anxiety and increases your levels of stress. Our reaction, of course, is to add some ice cream to the pie, for a quick hit of dopamine. We are regularly outwitted by the tiny microbes in our gut.


Stress and rich food can alter our microbiota, and that microbiota can add to our stress. It’s what we expect at this time of year. Until we get smarter, and I’m not holding my breath, we just need to trim our excesses and hope we make it through the season. In other words, happy holidays. It’s only a few days of debauchery, and we’ll promise to fix everything in our New Year’s resolutions.

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