Written by Kate Fisk, Nutritional Therapist DipCNM, mBANT, mANP, rCNHC
We have all suffered an occasional bloated stomach after an over-indulgent meal. But what if it's happening a few times a week or after every meal?
Many factors can throw our digestion out of balance – let's have a closer look at some of the issues that might be contributing to your bloating blues.
First of all, what is bloating? It's that uncomfortable feeling when our abdomen feels tight or stretched, our stomach or intestines fill with gas, and the sensation can range from uncomfortable to very painful.
Bloating is often accompanied by a swollen abdomen, burping, gas, rumbling sounds and constipation. It can also coincide with irritable bowel syndrome and chronic indigestion.
Bloating is distinct from water retention, which occurs throughout the body; common signs are rings being too tight or socks leaving a mark at the end of the day.
Undoubtedly, bloating can make us feel miserable and impact our quality of life, but what causes it, and what can we do about it?
What causes bloating?
Our guts are the central hub of many of our body's functions, from nutrient absorption to immune and brain function. Therefore, when we experience bloating after eating, we must consider what our gut might be telling us. Like the metaphorical canary in the coal mine, bloating can often be an indicator of problems elsewhere.
Although bloating is not entirely understood by the scientific community and cannot be pinned down to one overarching cause, several triggers are known to contribute:
Imbalances in the gut bacteria
Trillions of microorganisms reside in our gut, comprising over 1000 species of bacteria, yeast and other organisms. Together they make up our gut microbiome, which plays a part in various essential functions that help us stay healthy, including digestion, removal of toxins, vitamin production, keeping pathogens in check, and immune and mood regulation.
Many factors, including stress, antibiotic use, infections, certain medications, poor diet and a lack of sleep, can contribute to dysbiosis, an imbalance in the microbiome that can impact our health. This alteration in the microbiome can lead to an increased gas content in the intestines, causing bloating.
How to look after our gut bacteria
The best way to nurture our microbiome is to give it what it needs to thrive: a diet rich in diverse plant foods, preferably organic. If we get stuck eating the same vegetables with every meal, we will not be getting the wide range of different plant fibres required to keep our microbiome healthy and balanced.
A 2018 study concluded that individuals who consume over thirty different plant foods during a week have more diverse gut bacteria than those who eat less than ten.
Minimise processed foods, particularly refined carbohydrates, i.e. white flour, sugar, and rice. These add little to no nutritional value and are quickly fermented by our gut bacteria, leading to a build-up of gas and bloating. Instead, make the bulk of your diet up of whole, unprocessed foods. Read labels - go for foods with as few ingredients as possible.
Include unpasteurised probiotic foods such as sauerkraut or kimchi. These have a beneficial effect on digestion.
Some foods contain resistant starch (vital food for the gut bacteria that look after the health of our colon) but only when cooked and cooled. Try preparing some of the following to keep in the fridge to add to salads: potatoes, sweet potatoes, lentils, peas, whole grains, e.g. quinoa, wild rice.
Unlike allergies, sensitivities to particular foods can take up to 72 hours to manifest, often with seemingly unrelated symptoms such as joint pain, fatigue, rashes, headaches, anxiety, inability to lose weight, bloating, and other digestive issues.
Gluten and dairy are two of the most common culprits, but some people, particularly those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and SIBO, struggle to digest foods containing FODMAPs. FODMAPs are a group of carbohydrates or sugars found in a range of foods, which can be difficult to digest, are easily fermented by gut bacteria, and draw water into the large intestine, resulting in bloating and other symptoms such as abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
As it is challenging to stick to and may not meet all your nutritional requirements, a low FODMAP diet is not a long-term solution, but it does allow sufferers to identify which foods might be causing them the most problems, and it also helps alleviate symptoms whilst working on healing the gut.
Food sensitivities arise for many reasons: we may lack the enzymes required to digest certain foods, our gut bacteria may be compromised, and chronic stress can impact the protective lining of our gut, making us more sensitive to certain foods.
The best way to get to the bottom of any food intolerance is to work with a Nutritional Therapist, who will be able to guide you through an elimination/reintroduction diet to pinpoint which foods may be causing the problem. But if you suspect that a particular food is causing problems for you, try keeping a food and symptom diary.
Note the types of food eaten and any other relevant information, such as how stressed you are, when any symptoms start, and how long they last. You might see some patterns emerging, which will give you a clue as to which foods might be causing a problem for you.
The frequency and consistency of our bowel movements reflect our overall health. We should have one or two (no-strain!) bowel movements every day. The longer our waste products sit in our gut, the higher the chance of gut bacteria fermenting them, which can cause excess gas and bloating.
What can you do?
Keep hydrated - if undigested food stays in our colon for too long, it becomes dry, compacted and hard to shift. Starting the day with a large glass of water and repeating every couple of hours helps keep things moving through your gut.
If you are struggling to go, try eating some kiwi. A recent review shows that eating two a day can relieve constipation.
Eat at least one portion of leafy greens every day: rich in magnesium, these vegetables will help support muscle contraction within the gut.
Eating ground flax seeds can help keep bowel movements regular . Try adding some to a smoothie or salad dressing. Start with a teaspoon and gradually build up to 1-2 tbsp daily.
Healthy fats help move stool through the gut, so try to have some with every meal. These include avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, oily fish, eggs, nuts and seeds.
Get moving! I'm not talking about a full-on body-pump session as soon as you finish your meal, but try a short walk soon after eating. This gentle movement helps things move through the digestive tract and may relieve some pressure.
Poor eating patterns
Digestion starts with preparing and cooking food: smelling the aromas and anticipating the food we are about to eat prompts the production of saliva, digestive juices and stomach acid. As soon as we start eating, enzymes in saliva begin breaking down the food, so by the time it reaches our stomach, some of the digestive work is done.
We often dive into the nearest shop, grab the first thing that appeals and then hastily eat it, often in front of a screen. Unfortunately, in this scenario, our body is playing catch-up, it has not received the cues necessary to start the digestion process, so food will sit longer in the stomach, leading to bloating.
Mindful eating improves digestive function ; when stressed, our body's priority becomes fight or flight, NOT digesting food. Realistically we don't have time to slow-cook all of our meals, but there are a few things you can try to support digestion:
- Always sit down to eat
- Take a few deep breaths before your first mouthful to make sure you are in rest and digest mode
- Take small bites and chew each mouthful a minimum of 10 times
- Put your cutlery down while you chew each mouthful
- Focus! – keep phones off the table and avoid eating in front of your computer screen
- When you can make your meals something to relish – lay the table, use your favourite crockery and glassware, eat with family members
Short-term strategies to reduce bloating
As a Nutritional Therapist, I always look for root causes of imbalances within the body, not quick fixes. However, there are a few things you can try to relieve the discomfort when you are mid-bloat:
Try sipping on herbal teas made from carminative herbs, particularly after eating. These help to relieve cramping and expel excess gas; they include fennel, peppermint, chamomile and ginger.
Many Mediterranean herbs, such as rosemary, oregano, parsley and basil, have carminative properties, so add these as often as you can to your dishes when you cook.
Avoid sugar-free foods containing sugar alcohol (including chewing gum). You'll see these on the ingredients list often ending in '-ol' such as sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol. Some people struggle to digest these sweeteners, which contribute to gassiness and bloating .
Ditch the soda – gulping gassy soda increases the volume in your stomach, setting off stretch receptors in the stomach lining, which can contribute to feelings of gassiness and bloating. A 2017 study tells us that drinking 5-6 sodas a week is associated with an increased risk of bloating and abdominal pain.
Other factors may contribute to bloating. If you suffer regularly, I suggest speaking to your GP or health practitioner.
Nutritional Therapist Kate Fisk helps you get to the root cause of your health issue and offers nutritional support to help relieve your symptoms. You can get in touch with her here.