Written by Carmela Pengelly. Carmela is a dietary therapist and nutritional therapist, trained in the UK.
She now lives in Perth, Western Australia, where she practices as a nutritionist, specializing in SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), methylation issues, and vegan/vegetarian diets. She also offers consultations outside of Australia, via Skype.
Bloating can make you miserable and uncomfortable. You’re not alone, though - it affects around 1 in 5 healthy individuals.
Most are confused over what to do. Finding and resolving the underlying causes can help, as well as adopting strategies to ensure a healthy gut. Below you’ll find 10 reasons why you’re suffering from this common discomfort and what you should be doing about it.
10 Reasons Why You Can’t Get Your Jeans Up
If you experience unexplained bloating and if your symptoms won’t go away, consult your doctor to rule out any serious health conditions.
- Low Stomach Acid
Your stomach uses a powerful combination of hydrochloric acid, protein-digesting enzymes and muscle contractions to digest food. It’s amazing to think that if you eat a large steak, it will be broken down into a semi-liquid consistency by the time it leaves the stomach.
If stomach acid is low, this won’t happen as effectively. You will most likely suffer lots of bloating and burping immediately after meals, especially protein-rich meals.
Paradoxically, you may also experience heartburn with low stomach acid. People believe that heartburn is caused by too much stomach acid, but it’s most likely because you don’t have enough.
- Lack of Enzymes
Once the stomach has done its job, food moves into the small intestine, where digestive enzymes break down food further.
Age, stress, certain diseases and medications, can all reduce output of these enzymes. This causes undigested food or partially digested food to enter the large intestine, where bacteria begin to ferment it.
It’s the gases that these bacteria produce that cause bloating, flatulence and discomfort.
- Milking It
If your morning latte is giving you bloating, stomach pains and sometimes diarrhoea, you may not be producing enough lactase, the enzyme needed to digest the milk sugar, lactose.
Lactose intolerance affects around 65% of people, according to the US National Institutes of Health, and becomes more common with age.
You may need to swap your milk for soy, almond or coconut milk, or try lactose-free milk.
Probiotics that contain the Lactobacillus strain can also help to increase your body’s lactase activity.
You’ll probably find that you can eat some cheese and yoghurt as these are lower in milk sugar. You can also supplement your gut health with Nu U Nutrition Bio-Cultures Complex, containing 5 active probiotic strains.
A common cause for bloating is constipation. It can have lots of different causes including:
- Not Enough Fibre
Fibre helps bulk out the stool and provides a substrate for the growth of healthy gut flora.
If you want to increase fibre intake, do it gradually as you can induce constipation if your body isn’t used to it. Supplementation can help as well – Nu U Nutrition offers Inulin Prebiotic Fibre Powder for those who need to increase their fibre intake.
- Gut Flora Imbalance
Good bacteria don’t just sit in your gut doing nothing. They are very metabolically active and play an important role in regulating our digestive function, including stimulating gut motility.
- Not Enough Water
70% of our stools are made of water (Waugh). If you’re not drinking enough, your stools will be hard and much more difficult to pass.
Many medications have the unfortunate side-effect of constipation. Increasing fibre intake, drinking plenty of water and exercising may help.
You may need to consider taking a natural laxative occasionally. Supplements containing psyllium husks and natural herbs are a good choice.
- Food Intolerances
Many people have bloating due to an intolerance to certain sugars collectively termed FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols).
A clue that you may be intolerant to FODMAPs is that you react to foods such as onion, garlic, broccoli and fruit.
Up to 80% of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) sufferers experience relief from their symptoms when following a low FODMAP diet.
A word of warning though – the long-term use of low FODMAP diets can cause malnutrition. You should only follow the diet for a few weeks, while the underlying causes of your digestive problems are resolved.
For other suspected intolerances, the best way to identify the culprit foods is to follow a controlled elimination and reintroduction diet.
See a health care practitioner for guidance if you think you have a food intolerance.
- Coeliac Disease
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease. It can occur at any age and affects around 1 in 100 people, according to Coeliac UK.
In coeliac disease, gluten-containing foods trigger an immune reaction, where immune cells start to attack and damage the small intestine.
The main symptoms include bloating and diarrhoea, which can last for days after eating a gluten-containing food, e.g wheat, rye, barley and oat products.
Unfortunately, coeliac disease is often passed off as being IBS and a shocking 75% of sufferers do not get diagnosed.
If you think you’re reacting to gluten, it’s worth getting checked out by your doctor, or see a nutritionist for further advice.
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) occurs where abnormally large amounts of bacteria start to populate the small intestine. These bacteria start to ferment food in the small intestine, producing large quantities of gases.
SIBO is notoriously difficult to treat, so it’s important to work with a specialist nutritionist or doctor if you think you have this condition.
- Fight or Flight
If you’re worrying about something while eating your meal, or, worse still, if you eat on the run, you’re very likely to pay the price with lots of bloating and indigestion.
In times of stress your body is predominantly in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Digestion becomes sluggish, and output of stomach acid and digestive enzymes drops.
You’ve probably got thrush if you suffer bloating, sugar cravings and lack of focus. Thrush is caused by an overgrowth of the yeast, Candida albicans.
You can improve your symptoms, using a strict diet and natural anti-fungals.
Your gut and liver work together during digestion.
Bile from the liver helps prepare fats for absorption and stimulates gut motility. Low bile output is a common cause of constipation and bloating, so it’s important to keep your liver healthy.
Parasitic infections are more common than you’d think, and you don’t necessarily have to have gone abroad to contract them. Around 10% of the UK population have parasites, according to diagnostic experts Cambridge Nutritional Sciences.
Parasites are often overlooked as a cause for gas and bloating, but if you do have unexplained symptoms, it’s worth getting checked.
A sign that you may have parasites is that your symptoms follow a pattern of flare-ups every few weeks, reflecting the life-cycle typical of parasites.
If you have a stool test done with your doctor, be aware that these tests are not 100% reliable as they do not detect parasites in their dormant phase. If you’re doubtful, you consider getting retested.
What is IBS Exactly?
As the name suggests, IBS is a syndrome not a disease - so it is really just a collection of symptoms, including bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhoea or constipation or both (Lovino) .
IBS is diagnosed in around 1 in 10 people, but sadly, its root causes often remain undiscovered. Consider some of the above conditions as possible reasons why you might be suffering from IBS.
How to Beat the Bloat
Fermented foods were a natural part of our diet in the past and they are still staples in many cultures.
- Kimchi, made from fermented, spiced cabbage and other vegetables, is eaten in Korea
- Cabbage-based sauerkraut is found in many European countries
- Kefir, made from fermented milk, is drunk in Turkey
- The Japanese eat natto, a fermented soy bean dish, for breakfast.
Most Western cultures have lost the art of preparing and consuming fermented foods. Eating these foods daily can help maintain good gut flora, provide a good source of vitamins and help create the right environment for a healthy gut.
Unpasteurised sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, apple cider vinegar and kombucha are all good choices.
A daily dose of a good quality probiotic helps to encourage our good bacteria to grow and discourage the over-growth of pathogenic microbes.
Probiotics become even more essential when you consider that stressful lifestyles, unhealthy diets and certain medications (e.g antibiotics) can decimate our own gut flora.
Choose a probiotic that has a range of different strains for best results.
Rest and Digest
Our digestive function is governed by the parasympathetic side of our nervous system. This kicks in when we’re relaxed. Make sure you’re sitting down and feeling calm before your meal.
Eating bitter foods stimulates the release of saliva, gastric juices, digestive enzymes and bile and is hugely beneficial in facilitating proper digestion.
Unfortunately, standard Western diets are generally quite bland, and we have gotten unused to the taste of bitter foods. Producers are also growing less bitter-tasting vegetables to cater for our modern preferences.
Try eating bitter foods as a starter to a meal, e.g a bowl of rocket, radicchio or some grapefruit.
If you really can’t stand these flavours and your digestion needs a boost, you can take digestive enzymes as capsules or tablets.
Spice It Up
Spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and fennel can help bloating, excessive gas, and abdominal pain. These spices also help act as natural antimicrobials, killing off unwanted pathogens in the gut.
Try a soothing fennel tea after a meal or make yourself a chai when your gut is acting up.
Exercise is great therapy for bloating, especially if it is caused by constipation.
Just going for a relaxing walk or swim helps to physically move things along in the digestive system but also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for good digestion.
It sounds very strange but singing regularly, and really belting it out, can do wonders for your digestive system.
Singing stimulates the vagus nerve, which switches on a mechanism in digestion called the migrating motor complex (MMC).
The MMC causes contractions in the intestines periodically over the day, which help to sweep food and bacteria through the gut, stopping them from accumulating and causing problems in the future (DeLoose).
If you hear your tummy rumbling, this is often the MMC at work.
Gargling with water has the same effect on the vagus nerve but is a lot less fun.
Stick to 3 Meals a Day
Sticking to 3 meals a day and avoiding snacking in between also activates the MMC, and helps prevent bacterial and yeast overgrowths.
Don’t Water It Down
We do need to drink plenty of water to support digestion. However, it’s best to avoid drinking a lot of fluid at meal times as this dilutes the gastric juices in your stomach and reduces their effectiveness.
Addressing the Bloat in Your Life
If you suffer from frequent, chronic bloating, there are many things you can do to address it. The key is to fully evaluate your diet, ensure nothing is missing that you need, and build an action plan for it. Nu U Nutrition’s Bio-Cultures Complex Probiotics is a great place to start, and you can ensure you are getting enough fibre with our Inulin Prebiotic Fibre Powder.