The table’s groaning, and so are you

 

Mouth

 
Problem
Toothache/cracked crowns/chipped teeth
 
What’s happening?
Our teeth are under stress at Christmas, says Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of the awareness charity the Dental Health Foundation. ‘We eat sweet things, constantly graze, and don’t give teeth time to recover from acid attacks. Plus it’s not unusual for dentists to see patients who have broken a crown trying to crack a nut in their mouths, or chipped a molar using their teeth instead of a bottle opener.’
 
Solution
‘If you have any ongoing mouth problems, get checked out before Christmas.’ But be warned, Carter says, ‘This is the most difficult time of year to get an appointment. There’s no need to brush more than twice a day, but pay particular care and attention to oral hygiene, especially last thing, as saliva flow, which helps with neutralising the acid in the mouth, is reduced at night. Try not to graze all day as that will keep your teeth bathed in sugar, and chew a little sugar-free gum to increase saliva flow. Find and use your nutcrackers and bottle openers. If you have a problem, take painkillers, and if your dental practice is closed, find a pharmacist who may know the nearest emergency dental service, and can offer temporary crowns or fillings to tide you over.’

Oesophagus/ Stomach

 
Problem
Heartburn and indigestion
 
What’s happening?
Most of us will feel bloated and suffer indigestion at Christmas, warns gastrointestinal consultant surgeon Sally Norton of Spire Bristol Hospital. ‘We eat late at night, eat over-large meals and consume too much alcohol, which relaxes the lower sphincter muscle in the oesophagus, allowing stomach acid to flow back up the gullet, where it irritates the lining, causing that inflamed feeling.’
 
Solution
‘Eat more slowly — enjoy the social aspect of meals,’ says Ms Norton, who specialises in weight-loss surgery. ‘It takes 20 minutes for the brain to register that the stomach is full, yet most of us finish our meal much more quickly than that.’ She also warns against the eat-now-diet-later mindset. ‘A lot of us think you can have a massive blowout in December and compensate with a few restrictions in January, but that rarely happens. Far better to take it easier over Christmas.’ Norton also suggests alternating glasses of alcohol and water to prevent heartburn, and taking milky drinks if you do suffer, or propping up the head end of the bed on bricks, which allows gravity to help.
 
Alarm bells
If indigestion lasts more than a few days, or you have trouble swallowing or food feels like it’s sticking, see a GP. ‘There is a link between acid reflux and oesophageal cancer, which is rare but on the increase,’ warns Norton.

Small Intestine

 
Problem
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); coeliac disease
 
What’s happening?
IBS sufferers complain of painful spasms in the stomach, often after eating or when stressed. They may get frequent bouts of constipation, diarrhoea and wind. The symptoms for coeliac disease are similar, meaning it often goes undiagnosed for years. ‘Coeliac disease,’ says Ms Norton, ‘is caused by intolerance to gluten, so symptoms can show up over Christmas, as we may eat or drink unusual foods with wheat in. IBS is not necessarily an intolerance to anything specific, although certain foods seem to act as triggers for different people.’
 
Solution
Coeliac can be diagnosed easily by your GP with a blood test, explains Norton, but the only treatment is to avoid wheat and anything containing gluten for good. If the blood test is negative, IBS is more likely, so try keeping a food diary to identify triggers, such as foods that make you gassy, and avoid them. Chronic sufferers may get referred to a dietician, and painkillers and antispasmodics can help with cramps.

Large Intestine

 
Problem
Constipation and piles
 
What’s happening?
‘We tend to get dehydrated over Christmas,’ warns Ms Norton. ‘We drink more alcohol, we aren’t very active, and we eat less fibre, opting for chocolates over fresh fruit and veg. This causes constipation, which can become chronic, with straining leading to piles or inflamed veins, which can be painful.’
 
Solution
Rather than filling the house with bowls of sweets, put out nuts and fruits, advises Norton. ‘Moving around helps to prevent you getting bloated and gassy, so take a walk every day. Drink lots of water. Your GP can advise if the problem persists.’ She adds that while piles may heal themselves, a simple banding procedure or an injection in the surgery can resolve the issue.
 
Alarm bells
If there is a new problem with constipation or rectal bleeding, your GP may want to check for early signs of bowel cancer.

Gall Bladder

 
Problem
Gall stones
 
What’s happening?
You’ve just eaten a delicious slice of roquefort, and ouch — there’s a pain on your right-hand side, under the ribs, that spreads into the shoulder and back. ‘It’s a colicky pain,’ says Norton, ‘almost like a labour pain that comes and goes, and can make you feel like vomiting. It typically comes on after eating fatty or rich food, and is more common if you are overweight, female and in middle age. The stones are caused by precipitation of the chemicals in bile, the digestive juice formed in the gall bladder. When you eat rich food, your body tries to squirt out the bile, but the stones block the valve, causing pain.’
 
Solution
Doctors don’t know why the stones form, but relief comes with the gall bladder being extracted, usually via keyhole surgery. ‘It’s unusual to have problems afterwards,’ says Norton.