Does this sound familiar? You wake in the morning feeling great, with a nice flat belly, but by the evening your gut is swollen and aching, or at the very least uncomfortable and tight? Is bloating a problem for you? It is for many people and chances are that if you answered ‘yes’ then you are probably a woman, with about one in three women experiencing abdominal bloating. But, while bloating is more common for women it is also a problem for lots of men, and for some unlucky people, bloating is a constant and serious problem.
CAUSES OF BLOATING
There are lots of causes of bloating – sometimes it is simply the result of overeating but if it happens regularly it could be due to any of the following:
- Food allergies
- Food intolerances
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Gas-producing foods
- Swallowing air (aerophagia)
- Intestinal parasites
- Menstruation, period pain, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
- Diverticulosis, Splenic-Flexure Syndrome, partial bowel obstruction
- Visceral fat
Gases are produced in the colon after we eat or drink. Normally they move through the gut where they are mostly absorbed or they are passed out of the body. But if the gas gets trapped along the way then discomfort and distension occurs. Sometimes bloating can be so severe that it makes you suddenly look pregnant.
STRESS AND BLOATING
A big problem and sometimes the cause of bloating is STRESS. When you are stressed your gut doesn’t work properly. When your body goes into ‘fight or flight mode’ the digestive system closes down. If you are living with ongoing stress your body stays in a prolonged state of ‘high alert’, as do all the digestive repercussions. If you can’t remove the stressors from your life then you need to introduce things into your routine that will give you a break from the stressful state, such as yoga, meditation, walking the labyrinth, deep breathing, exercise, listening to relaxing music, going for a walk – whatever it is that relaxes and calms you. And you need to make the commitment to do whatever it is that you choose on a regular basis.
Gynaecological problems can lead to bloating and again can be mixed up with problems with foods or drinks. Bloating is often related to the hormonal cycle and together with constipation is often worse in the time before periods when hormonal activity is high. HRT can also contribute to bloating in older women.
Isolating the offender can be further complicated because even something as seemingly innocuous as calcium supplements may cause bloating for some people. The range of causes can be diverse and complicated mix from a number of different sources
FOODS AND BLOATING
Foods are a big contributor to bloating, with food intolerances probably being the biggest cause. Food intolerances are often very difficult to identify, especially if there is more than one single food involved. Symptoms do not always show up immediately after eating and may take days to become evident.
Problem foods often come from these groups:
- Vegetables – Onions (including garlic) and Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts)
- Dairy foods – milk, cheese, ice-cream, and foods containing milk solids
- Grains – wheat, corn (including popcorn)
- Fruits – such as apples, peaches and pears
- Sweets – hard candy, chewing gum
- Highly spiced foods
- Carbonated drinks (and champagne)
Eating processed foods, which are high in bloating-promoting ingredients can be the reason for bloating. Fructose, one such ingredient, is often added to processed foods, and fructose intolerance is a problem which increasingly more and more people are finding they suffer from. Going on the FODMAP diet can help with fructose intolerance but it needs to be done under the supervision of a practitioner as it varies a little from one individual to another and can be very complicated to put together.
Salt can be a problem, particularly from highly processed foods as it can cause or worsen bloating and water retention. It is far better to avoid processed foods and to use other seasonings in your cooking.
PROBLEM FOOD FOR BLOATING
Gluten, lactose and fructose intolerances are the three most common reasons for bloating that I see in my practice. If you have a fairly strong idea that one of these is behind your problem you can try eliminating it for a week and watch the effect. But be aware that these ingredients can often be hidden, for instance gluten is present in many medications.
While lactose, sorbitol and wheat as well as vegetables like cabbage, broccoli and onions can cause in creased gas production, the underlying problem is really that your digestive tract is not contracting properly, and it is when this occurs that the gas gets trapped.
Removing offending foods from your diet will help lessen symptoms but in the long term it is often better to fix the problem at a deeper level, and Natural Medicine can help.
NATURAL REMEDIES FOR BLOATING
There are a number of Homeopathic medicines you can take to stimulate the gut so that it starts to contract properly and then keeps on working properly – using homeopathy here is a bit like a ‘re-training’ for the Gastro Intestinal Tract. You will have best results when you do this under the guidance of a fully trained Homeopath (not a Naturopath) as the remedies need to be prescribed and taken according to homeopathic prescribing guidelines.
Herbs are another Natural Medicine option that can help bloating. Peppermint is well-known for its effect on the digestive system but it is worth remembering that while it works like a treat for lots of people about 40% actually get a worsening of their symptoms from peppermint and so are better to avoid it altogether. Other mints are also helpful. Ginger is another good digestive herb that might help you.
Fennel is probably the best herbal digestive aid and will relieve gas magnificently as well as reduce bloating and cramps. You can chew fennel seeds or drink fennel tea. Teas are one of the easiest and best ways to take herbs at home and you can make your own or buy one ready-made, even from the supermarket, that contains fennel (look for a brand that specializes in producing herbal teas rather than something made by say, Lipton). It is easy to make your own Fennel Tea, simply crush one teaspoon of fennel seeds and add to a cup of water. Bring it to the boil, cover and steep for ten to fifteen minutes. Cool and strain. Drink two to three cups each day.
Try the teas out and if you get no positive response from one try another instead. I have a delicious and effective commercial digestive tea which I drink occasionally. It contains cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, clove, peppercorn and spearmint amongst other ingredients, which are all digestive aids.
Taking probiotics, Bifidus and Acidopholus, can be helpful. They help to repopulate your gut with ‘good bacteria’ and so go quite a way to redressing the imbalance between ‘good’ and ‘bad bacteria’ that often accompanies bloating. Look for a reputable brand from your health food shop, one that is for ‘practitioner dispensing only’ is often better the better choice.
Digestive Enzymes are available over the counter and can be a great help in breaking down the gas-forming foods when there is an insufficient amount of enzymes in the small intestamine.
Activated charcoal can help to relieve the gas and bloating. You can get it in tablet form and take it before and after meals. But don’t use it if you are taking the contraceptive pill or other medications and don’t use it long term.
Essential Oils are a wonderful way to help with stress. Choose from peppermint, orange, rose, cinnamon and basil oils or buy a ready-made stress-relieving or balancing blend from your health food shop.
EXERCISE FOR BLOATING
There are also some exercises you can do to help when the pain is really bad.
Rolling a soft ball over your abdomen can help move the gas along the digestive tract.
Lying on your back and hugging one leg to your chest while you keep the other flat on the floor for the count of 20 and then doing the same with the other leg at least five times may alleviate symptoms.
Five minutes of deep abdominal breathing is one of the best ways to get some relief and is a good practice to adopt every single day whether you are bloated or not.
But, persistent chronic bloating can be a symptom of intestinal blockage or more sinister diseases such as ovarian cancer or uterine fibroids and it could be worth getting checked out by your doctor, particularly if you also have unexplained weight loss or gain.
It is becoming more and more widely recognised that many serious health problems stem from problems with the gut not functioning well, so keeping your digestive system working happily really is fundamental to maintaining good health.
YOUR HAPPY GUT CHECK LIST
- Maintain a healthy diet, keep regular eating patterns and don’t skip meals – eat slowly and chew everything well
- Remove problematic foods selected from the list above from your diet
- Increase your water intake (flat not carbonated) and cut back alcohol which is an irritant for your gut
- Replace white wheat bread with different grains such as rye or spelt, or even gluten-free, and try to broaden the range of grains you consume
- Avoid dairy products as many, many people are in fact lactose intolerant
- Investigate Natural Medicine to combat your symptoms
- Take measures to reduce your stress
- Limit sugar in your diet, especially the fructose found in fruits and juices
All information and opinions presented here are for information only and are not intended as a substitute for professional advice offered during a consultation. Please consult with your health care provider before trying any of the treatment suggested on this site.