By Tracy Tredoux, @TracyTredoux
Today bloating has become so common that it’s being referred to as an ‘epidemic’. Bloating is even starting to become commonplace amongst children, many under the age of 10. So, what exactly is going on?
For many people, a combination of poor diet, high stress levels, use of daily medications and exposure to pollutants makes it unsurprising that they are suffering some sort of bloating. A bloated stomach is commonly caused by air becoming stuck around the abdomen, resulting in it protruding out uncomfortably and, in more severe cases, giving the appearance of pregnancy. Bloating is not only uncomfortable but can often be embarrassing when accompanied by gas or the need to run to the bathroom. There are numerous reasons for developing a bloated stomach and it is important to note that bloating is not the same as water retention or carrying extra fat mass. It is usually temporary, even though it may occur several times in a day. However, simply because bloating is becoming more and more common, this does not make it “normal.” Bloating is often a symptom of an underlying health problem. A medical diagnosis of IBS typically rules out celiac disease, colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease, leaving you with a number of debilitating symptoms, such as abdominal pain, a change in bowel habits, excessive wind (flatulence) and swelling of your stomach. Most medical treatments for IBS are aimed at masking, relieving and/or managing symptoms rather than addressing underlying root cause/s.
What are the possible causes of your bloated stomach?
- Food allergies, sensitivities and/or intolerances are among the most common causes of gas and bloating. The main offenders are dairy products; gluten-containing foods such as most breads, pasta, cereals, etc; and certain carbohydrates called FODMAPS. FODMAP is an acronym for a group of short-chain carbohydrates that, if poorly digested, ferment in your large intestine, resulting in pain, bloating, abdominal swelling, gas and other digestive disorders. Fructose (found in many fruits and vegetables), lactose (found in dairy foods), fructans (found in vegetables and grains), galactans (found mainly in grains) and polyols (found mainly in artificial sweeteners and chewing gum) are all FODMAPs. An elimination diet, providing a list of foods containing FODMAPs, is often followed by people trying to get to the root cause of their debilitating digestive issues. Keeping a food diary and becoming more mindful of how you feel after eating certain foods is an important tool in helping you get to the bottom of your digestive issues.
- Dysbiosis – an imbalance in your gut microbiome, resulting in an overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria, viruses, parasites and yeasts (such as candida) – can lead to abdominal pain, excessive gas and bloating. Dysbiosis is becoming a common problem today due to poor diets, heartburn medications, antibiotic use and stress. If the unfriendly bacteria continue to dominate, they can damage the intestinal lining, resulting in a “leaky gut” and health problems such as autoimmune diseases, weight gain and even depression, anxiety and fatigue.
- SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) causes symptoms of abdominal pain, gas and bloating caused by an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. Non-pathogenic bacteria which normally live in the large intestine have, in the case of SIBO, abnormally grown into the small intestine – where they do not belong. Because the small intestine is not designed for heavy bacterial colonisation, these bacteria feed on the carbohydrates (such as the undigested FODMAPs), producing methane and/or hydrogen gas. FODMAPs are harder for some people to digest and when undigested, they become fermented by bacteria, causing symptoms such as gas, pain and bloating. Constipation, low stomach acid, low pancreatic enzymes and a parasitic infection are a few of the causes of SIBO.
- Bacteria in the large intestine also thrive on the FODMAPS you were unable to digest and absorb in your small intestine and which passed, undigested into the large intestine. If your intestine is being fed more FODMAPs than usual, the bacteria there will produce more gas. When your large intestine has extra gas, YOU have extra gas. Gas that is trapped and has a hard time coming out, causes you to be bloated. It is important to know that not everyone is sensitive to FODMAPs. Only people with certain G.I. problems such as IBS and SIBO, will get symptoms after eating them.
- After being consumed, FODMAPs pull extra water into your intestines. This can also make your abdomen feel swollen or actually be swollen and distended.
Tips to help reduce gas and bloating
- Chew your food properly. The enzymes in your saliva start the digestion (breaking down) of food particles, particularly sugars and carbohydrates.
- Include chia seeds in your diet. Chia seeds are high in a particular fibre which, in the gut, helps to absorb and eliminate some gasses. Here is a recipe for a delicious chia seed dessert. Two to three tablespoons of chia a day can help reduce gas and bloating and even eliminate digestive problems and help with constipation.
- Consume kiwi fruit and figs. Both are rich in enzymes, which help with constipation and can reduce gas and bloating. As an added bonus, kiwis are rich in antioxidants and even omega 3 fatty acids from their seeds. The enzymes in both figs and kiwi help to break down protein. Figs help absorb certain toxins in the gut and contain pre-biotics which support the pre-existing good bacteria in the gut, improving digestive wellness.
- Take digestive enzymes before each meal. Our bodies produce specific enzymes which help break down protein, carbs, fats, fibre and even beans and dairy. However, as we get older, we naturally start producing less digestive enzymes. Giving our bodies the support they need to break down food particles will help reduce gas and bloating that result from undigested food particles hanging around in the digestive tract.
- Consume probiotics. The best time is early morning and late at night, on an empty stomach. Probiotics help colonise the gut, dislodging toxins and creating their own enzymes which break down substances lodged in the gut. Healthy gut bacteria further assist with the digestion of food particles in the colon, so these particles are not able to linger and cause gas, bloating and constipation.
- Eat mono meals. Filling yourself up on a meal that consists of ONE thing (such as a baked potato, a big bowl of steamed sweet potato, a melon for breakfast etc) removes the burden on your digestive system of having to differentiate from an array of different substances, each requiring different enzymes. Doing this for a day or two can help reset your digestive system.
- Drink peppermint tea. When you feel bloated and uncomfortable, peppermint tea is a great go to remedy for gas, bloating and other digestive issues.
- Go for a walk after a meal. Movement helps with the speed at which food will move through your digestive tract. Exercise and being generally active help your digestive system function optimally.
Foods to avoid
The most obvious foods to avoid if you struggle with gas and bloating are:
- Sugars and sweetened snacks.
- Conventional dairy.
- Refined grains such as gluten, corn, oats and other grains which many people find difficult to digest.
- Vegetables high in sulphur and FODMAP carbs such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, onion and garlic, which are difficult to digest for some.
If you are suffering from debilitating digestive symptoms on an ongoing basis it is advisable to make an appointment with your GP to rule out inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Once these have been ruled out, more often than not excessive gas and bloating can be cleared by making changes to your diet and lifestyle. And in the meantime, while you are trying to get to the root causes of your symptoms, when going out for dinner with friends and family, these basic tips should help to minimise your uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing digestive symptoms:
- refrain from drinking with your meal,
- take one to three (as directed) digestive enzymes before you eat,
- avoid the obvious offenders listed above, and
- try to stick to the mono food approach as much as possible. In other words, stick to one food group rather than eating a meal combining fats, carbs and proteins, all requiring different enzymes for digestion.
Tracy Tredoux is a fully qualified Nutritional Therapist, living and working in London. When not giving talks or consulting with clients, she writes health and nutrition articles, tips and recipes which you can find at https://tracytredoux.com