Dr Deepak K Agarwal
The writer is senior consultant gastroenterologist, hepatologist & endoscopist and is running a successful medical Centre in Lucknow
The winter season brings in cooler, pleasant weather - a source of joy in a tropical country like ours, but it can invite a plethora of health problems, including an unhealthy gut. For the uninitiated, gut health refers to the balance of microorganisms that tend to live in one’s digestive tract. Ensuring the right balance of these microorganisms and taking charge of your gut health is necessary for your overall health and well-being. The bacteria, yeasts, and viruses that are present in the gut are called the gut flora or gut microbiome. Many microbes are helpful for us, and some are even necessary, whereas, others can be harmful when they tend to multiply. Thus, it is the need of the hour to take care of the gut especially during the winter months wherein your digestive system can go for a toss.
The digestive system can be a source of considerable illness in winter if people eat the wrong food and don't rug up. The digestive system enters an active stage in winter and that is why dietary reinforcements are usually more effective than in other seasons. But stomach problems also often occur due to cold air, eating unsafe and spicy foods. Cold food should be avoided to reduce stimulation of gastric fluids, especially at breakfast. As most of the organs are still in a state of sleep, eating cold foods may result in contraction and poor blood circulation in the digestive system, leading to indigestion. Warm or relatively hot foods, however, can help stimulate blood circulation. Since immunity decreases with cold temperatures, we should also be aware of infectious digestive ailments with typical symptoms like diarrhoea and vomiting. Uncooked foods are the first group recommended to be crossed off the menu. As for patients with chronic stomach problems like inflammation or ulcers, it is essential to quit smoking, drinking and eating other stimulating foods. It is also advised to take precautionary medicine to stop relapses of stomach problems.
Stomach problems may occur more during the winter season if people eat excessive amounts of gas-producing foods like beans and lentils, broccoli, onion that can invite bloating and cramps too. Fatty foods and sugary snacks can wreak havoc on the gut that can cause even constipation. Tackling stress is vital for maintaining good gut health. De-stressing is not only important for your mental well-being but for your gut as well. According to various studies, psychological stressors may disrupt the microorganisms in the intestines, even when the stress is for a shorter period of time. There are many stressors that can take a toll on your gut. Beware of sleep deprivation, environmental stress like extreme heat, cold or noise, and psychological stress. So, stress management techniques like meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises and staying physically fit can help you enhance your gut health. Likewise, adhere to a healthy diet by including fresh fruits and vegetables, while avoiding junk, oily and fatty foods.
Opt for probiotics and fermented food. Don’t forget to eat probiotic food that can help support your gut. Probiotics can also help to boost the beneficial bacteria present in the gut. Hence, eating probiotics can help prevent inflammation of the gut, and deal with other intestinal problems. Likewise, eating fermented foods can also be helpful for your gut as these are a natural source of probiotics. Try to include fermented vegetables, kombucha, kimchi and kefir in the diet. Cut down on sugar and sweeteners. It is no brainer that a diet loaded with sugar and artificial sweeteners may lead to gut dysbiosis - that causes an imbalance of gut microbes. Various studies suggest that a diet that is loaded with sugar and fats can negatively affect one’s gut microbiome. Similarly, a few other studies indicate that artificial sweetener aspartame can increase the number of bacterial strains linked to a metabolic disease - a group of conditions which raises a person’s risk of heart disease and diabetes. Furthermore, artificial sweeteners can also impact one’s blood sugar levels too. Stick to a proper sleep routine. Keeping a regular sleep schedule can help improve your mood, memory and gut health. Irregular sleep routine may affect the gut flora and can increase the risk of inflammatory conditions. It’s important to get at least 8 hours of sleep a day.
The body likes to keep its core temperature steady at about 100° F, which is when the best digestion occurs. If cold temperatures — such as ice water or cold food in the diet — enter the stomach, the body works quickly to warm it. Temperature — of the body, weather, or the foods you eat — and its effects on digestion has intrigued physicians and scientists for at least 100 years. A well-regarded professor of several New York hospitals at the turn of the last century, the late William Gilman Thompson MD, included a chapter on the topic in his 1905 book, Practical Dietetics with Special Reference to Diet in Disease. In it, he writes: “One may begin a dinner with iced raw oysters, then take hot soup, and later conclude the meal with ice cream, followed by hot coffee,” he said of a proposed diet. “And yet throughout, the temperature of the stomach contents does not vary so much as half a degree.” Dr Thompson came to his conclusions based on the outcomes of “many experiments which I have made upon patients…to whom I have given fluids at different temperatures, which were immediately siphoned out of the stomach and tested for heat loss or gain.”
Even on a hot day, warm liquids generally soothe the system. Colonoscopy patients find warm liquids infused in the colon help alleviate pain or spasms. And anecdotally the wisdom from our grandmothers was to drink warm liquids — the belief being that warmth caused the muscles to relax — even the minuscule muscles that support the blood vessels. In warm climates, the blood vessels open and more hormones circulate to aid in all systems, including digestion. In cold climates, everything slows down, but not too much. In fact, the change is so subtle, the effects of air temperature on digestion usually goes unnoticed — except in extreme cases when the core temperature drops and hypothermia sets in. Treatment generally includes blankets and possibly intravenous fluids that are a little warmer than room temperature.