It’s a familiar occurrence for many of us – the skirt or pair of jeans which fitted so perfectly in the morning becomes increasingly tight as the day wears on, and we start to look and feel as if we swallowed a football for lunch.
Bloating is an extremely common problem, particularly for women, with up to 1/3 experiencing some degree of bloating. In severe cases, the discomfort, pain and physical symptoms associated with bloating can seriously affect quality of life. If you suffer from the dreaded belly bloat, before you resign yourself to a wardrobe full of elasticised waists, let’s look at what actually causes bloating and, more importantly, what we can do about it.
What exactly is bloating?
Bloating is a condition in which the abdomen feels full and tight and, in most cases, takes on a distended appearance. It is generally caused by a build up of gas in the stomach or intestines and can lead to cramping, extreme discomfort and nausea.
Some gas in the gastrointestinal tract is normal and is usually a result of either swallowed air or the breakdown of undigested food by intestinal bacteria, which then produce gas as a by-product.
Some people have a less effective transit of gas through the gut, leading to gas getting trapped which results in bloating. Women often process intestinal gas less efficiently than men and therefore have a greater likelihood of bloating. While it is not know exactly why this is the case, it may in part be due to hormonal effects, which explains why bloating can often be worse before or during a period.
Causes of bloating
There are some serious conditions that can cause bloating, so if you regularly suffer from this condition, it’s important to see your doctor to have these ruled out. However, some of the more common and less serious causes of bloating include
- Eating too fast
Shovelling down lunch so that you can get to that meeting in time might seem harmless, but it may cause you to swallow extra air, which is thought to be one of the main causes of bloating. Eating too fast can also mean that you eat too much, which can further contribute to bloating as there is more bulk in the stomach and intestines. Make sure you take time out for meals, chew your food well and aim to stop eating when you’re 80% full.
- Poor diet
Highly processed foods and foods high in fat and sugar can cause bloating. Base your diet on minimally processed foods as close to their natural state as possible and make sure you drink plenty of water to help keep your gut healthy and happy.
- Food intolerances
Food intolerances are one of the major causes of bloating, with certain carbohydrates known as FODMAPs being particular culprits. They include lactose, fructose and the carbohydrates found in legumes and artificial sweeteners, among others. In some people, these carbohydrates can be poorly absorbed in the small intestine and pass through to the large intestine where they are digested by bacteria which produce gas in the process. A low FODMAP diet can help to identify carbohydrate intolerances, but should be done so under the guidance of an Accredited Practising Dietitian.
Alcohol is a notorious bloater – a result of the combined effects of the alcohol itself, the carbonation and the sugar. If you think alcohol may contributing to bloating, cut down on your intake and alternate alcoholic drinks with water.
- Fizzy drinks
The gas used to carbonate soft drinks and fizzy drinks can become gas in our stomach and intestines. Soft drinks are especially troublesome as the sugar or artificial sweeteners can cause their own set of problems, as discussed earlier. Instead of soft drinks, go for water or if you really miss the bubbles, try soda water flavoured with fresh lime.
- Too much or too little fibre
Fibre is an indigestible carbohydrate and therefore reaches the large intestine intact. There the fibre can act as fuel to the resident bacteria, producing gas as a by-product. This is usually a good thing, but the numbers and types of bacteria affect how much gas is produced. Different types of fibre also have an influence on gas production, so while you might be OK with wholegrain bread, too many beans cause you discomfort.
A gradual increase in fibre can reduce symptoms of bloating, however, too much too fast can have the opposite effect – start low and go slow so that your gut has time to adjust. Over time you influence the bacterial groups present and previously ‘windy’ foods may then be tolerated.
It’s blindingly obvious when you think about it, but since we don’t like to talk about our bowel habits, constipation is often ignored. If you frequently find it difficult to go to the loo and feeling uncomfortable and bloated, there’s your problem. More fibre, plenty of water and exercise are the key factors in making you more regular.
What else can you do to reduce bloating?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria, which can be taken as a supplement to help create a healthy environment in the large intestine. They have been shown to reduce gastrointestinal complaints such as bloating in some sufferers.
Exercise can assist with the transit of gas (and intestinal contents) through the gut – one more reason to get out of the office and take a walk after lunch. A standing desk has also been reported to do wonders for bloating sufferers!
See an APD
After you’ve had serious causes of bloating ruled out by a doctor, a referral to an Accredited Practising Dietitian who specialises in allergies and intolerances can be extremely helpful in identifying triggers and finding strategies to help minimise bloating.
This article was originally published on Dr. Joanna McMillan’s site.