Bloating: what is it, what causes it and how to manage it

Bloating is something that every one of us has experienced at some point. Sometimes it can go unnoticed and not give us reason to worry, other times it can leave us feeling heavy and uncomfortable. Many people experience a ‘food baby’ after eating a heavy meal and in most cases, this is completely normal. However, a largely bloated abdomen should not be recurrent after every meal. It is also widely recognised that towards the end of the day many of us feel we are at our most bloated, ready to switch from our day clothes to the stretchy comfort of our loungewear.

What causes the bloat?

Bloating is caused by trapped air and other gasses inside out intestines. These trapped gasses can occur for a multitude of reasons such as;

Dysbiosis: Dysbiosis is the term used to describe an imbalance in our guts’ microbiome. The bad bacteria in our guts are particularly keen on fermenting refined sugars (which converts them into gasses). If our guts microbiome is unbalanced, we may struggle to properly digest foods which leaves them to ferment. This is called putrefaction and is where the undigested foods left to ferment cause more gas build up leading to bloating. Dysbiosis can also be the cause of constipation and diarrhoea which are known causes of bloat. Constipation results in extra waste build up, leaving it to ferment some more causing a build-up of gas.

Stress: When we are stressed, our body goes into fight or flight mode which used to be crucial to our survival back when we would be chased by wild animals when hunting for dinner. Now days we don’t tend to get chased by lions in the middle of the day, we do however still have the same emotional reaction to everyday stressors such as a hard day at work or a screaming child. When we are stressed, our body is heavily focused on the production of hormones that increase our physical and mental arousal – to keep us alive. This means blood flow is directed to the organs that will work to get us away from danger (our brain, heart and muscles) and there is less focus on digesting our lunch. Some people experience a ‘nervous tummy’ or feel nauseous as a result of the increase in stress hormones. The impaired focus on digestion leads to a bloated stomach and if chronically stressed can also lead to impaired nutrient digestion and absorption. 

Food intolerance or sensitivities: Those with food intolerances or sensitives find it difficult to digest certain foods. This can lead to IBS like symptoms such as abdominal cramping and pain, bloating and toilet urgency. Some of the more well-known intolerances/sensitivities are dairy (lactose), gluten, cruciferous vegetables, nightshades and alliums. Elimination diets help to identify which foods are causing a reaction, this should be discussed with the help of a healthcare professional.

Hormonal bloat: Bloating is a common symptom of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) and can happen a week or two before your period starts. This time in your menstrual cycle is known as the luteal phase and it is when the lining of your uterus gets thicker. Relief from bloating can come once you start bleeding or shortly after. If bloating is persistent, it may be a sign of a hormonal imbalance which may be supported through diet and lifestyle adjustments. 

Eating too quickly: Eating food or drinking too quickly increases the amount of air we swallow. This means there is a build-up of gas in our gut’s which creates more bloating. Not only this but if we are eating too quickly it probably means that we are also not chewing our food thoroughly, meaning the food we swallow will take longer to digest properly. It takes around 20 minutes for our brains to register our satiety hormone (the one that says stop eating now we’re satisfied). So when we eat too quickly over eating becomes common because we eat too much too quick before our brain has time to register.  Taking smaller bites, putting your fork down between bites and making sure you take the time to sit down and eat a meal without being in a rush are all ways to reduce excess air consumption.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): Those with IBS may react to certain foods much like those with a food sensitivity. However, there is much discussion that IBS may be caused by an imbalanced gut microbiome. An over-growth of certain ‘bad bacteria’ can lead to excessive gas production. For IBS sufferers, diets too high in fiber can cause an increase in gas production causing bloating to worsen.

How to beat the bloat

  • Working alongside a healthcare professional (i.e., nutritional therapist, nutritionist, dietician) allows you to determine the root cause of your bloat whether it be hormonal, dietary or an imbalance of your guts' microbiome. Once you have established the root cause of your bloat, you are able to create a nutritional plan that is tailored to support your specific needs and eliminates and foods you may be reacting to. By spending time with a healthcare advisor, you will be able to make sustainable lifestyle adjustments to help beat the bloat for good!
  • Mindfully eating means taking the time to sit down and eat your meals with no rush or distraction. Taking time to chew and rest between mouthfuls means you’ll swallow less air and make digestion easier for your guts’ microbiome and all the supporting enzymes.
  • Some people may benefit from supplementing with digestive enzymes or including bitter foods before, during or after each meal. Bitter foods and digestive enzymes help to increase stomach acidity and improve digestion. Examples of these foods include; ginger, artichoke, rocket, dark chocolate, watercress and kale. Many people also find that having lemon water or coffee after a meal helps to improve digestion.
  • Peppermint tea is commonly used to help reduce the bloat. Peppermint contains a natural oil which has been shown to be antispasmodic meaning it relaxes the muscles in the gut and aids removal of gas throughout digestive tract.
  • Reducing intake of highly processed foods and foods which contain refined sugars can help to reduce bloating. This is because the bad bacteria in our guts’ feed on these sugars and create more gas. When we continue to eat large amounts of highly processed foods we also cause and imbalance in our microbiome making it harder to digest our food well.
  • By keeping a food diary and making a log of each food and drink we consume daily for a week, makes it easier to pinpoint which foods might be causing us to bloat.
  • Improving levels of friendly bacteria in our guts. Good bacteria promote anti-inflammatory effects as well as proper digestion of foods. To improve out guts balance of friendly bacteria we can increase our intake of probiotics found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and kimchi. We can also take a friendly bacteria supplement daily to greatly improve diversity.
  • Light exercise can help to improve digestion after a meal by helping move food through the digestive tract. Walking after eating has been shown to help manage healthy blood sugar levels as well as reduce gas and bloating.
  • If you have any symptoms you feel are weighing heavy on your mind or notice any signs of pain/unbearable discomfort you should always get in touch with your GP.

Thankfully, beating the bloat isn’t impossible and we are here to help. If you are ready to say bye to the bloat, get in touch and book yourself for a free nutritional consultation with a registered nutritionist.