Q: [All Ages] Should I be concerned about overeating? What effects does it have on my body and can I get through the Holiday?
A: The gut is the digestive system. It helps break complex compounds that we eat into basic molecules that can be absorbed through the intestinal lining, allowing these molecules to be used as energy and building blocks for function and growth.
There are roughly 40 trillion bacteria in our body, most are located in our gut (the intestines). The gut microbiota is important for our health. There are hundreds of species of bacteria in our gut and each species plays a role in our health. They help us break down food and turn nutrients into things our body can use. The “good” bacteria also help keep your “bad” bacteria in check. They multiply so that the unhealthy kind do not have space to grow.
The balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome may affect our emotions through interaction with the brain (via the brain-gut axis) that affect the processing of information from our senses (e.g. sights, sounds, flavors or textures).
An unhealthy balance in our gut microbiome may affect the satiety center in our brain, leading to potential excessive appetite.
When food enters our mouth, the saliva in our mouth contains enzymes that starts the digestion of the starch component. The mastication breaks food into small pieces thereby increasing the surface area for the body’s enzymes to work on. Once the food bolus reaches the stomach, the stomach muscles contract, helping to mix the food with gastric juice (which contains enzymes, hormones, acid and other substances) and further digestive processes continues (here the protein component is beginning to be digested). Once the ingested food is small enough in size (now called chyme), it enters the duodenum. The duodenum (part of the small intestine) also receives bile from the gallbladder, and pancreatic enzymes from the pancreas. These help in the digestion of fats.
Once the carbohydrate, protein and fat molecules are small enough, they are absorbed into the bloodstream, via the small intestine, to be utilized by our body. The compounds that we cannot absorb or do not want to absorb (waste products) then enter the large intestine. During its passage towards the rectum, to be excreted, water is being reabsorbed. Once chyme has been in the large intestine for three to 10 hours it becomes semi-solid, resembling our understanding of stool.
What happens in our gut when we overeat?
Overeating leads to stomach expansion. The expanded stomach can lead to the sensation of bloating (which may also be exacerbated by bacterial action on the food leading to gas production). Our clothes may feel tight and uncomfortable.
To break down extra food, the stomach produces more acid, the extra acid may regurgitate up into the esophagus, resulting in heartburn.
Our metabolism may increase to digest the extra food, leading to possibly feeling flushed, sweatiness or dizziness.
Overeating can upset the circadian rhythm, making it hard for us to sleep through the night.
When you eat foods like red meat or eggs, some of the gut bacteria make a precursor that our liver turns into trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). TMAO may help cholesterol build up in your blood vessels, leading to cardiovascular disease. TMAO also may lead to chronic kidney disease.
When we eat, excess calories are stored as fat, leading to obesity. This increases our risk for cancer and other chronic health problems.
Tips for holiday eating:
- Be choosy. Don’t eat everything that is at the banquet. Pick your poison and enjoy judiciously (portion control).
- Timeout. Pause for 10 minutes between each helping — e.g. start a conversation, have a drink of water.
- Distance. Don’t stand next to the food stand/table. Better yet, have a mint or stick of gum handy, so the mouth does not have to be occupied by high-calorie food.
- Gas-up. Don’t go to a party on empty. Pre-fill the GI tract with some healthy snacks — e.g. small amount of fruit or vegetables.
- Watch the alcohol. Eggnogs can have up to three to four times the calories of mixed drinks. In addition, avoid alcohol on an empty stomach as it increases your appetite.
- Dance the night away. The dancing can help burn some of those extra calories.
But you do not have to deprive yourself. Enjoy the family and friends, the laughter and cheer. After all, it is the holidays.
Dr. Duke H. Nguyen is a gastroenterologist in Fountain Valley and has over 23 years of experience. He serves patients at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center and at Orange County Digestive Care.