We have all suffered from bloating at some point in our lives. That hideous feeling that our abdomen is about to burst open like a grisly scene from “Alien”. If, like most people, this is something that comes and goes, then looking at what and how you eat could be the first step in reducing the occurrences of bloating. However, if this is a permanent state for you then it is essential that you seek medical help to rule out more sinister issues. If you have been given the label of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and all medical causes have been ruled out, then seeing a nutritional therapist who can help to work through the many underlying causes of problematic digestive issues could be the next step to getting long-term relief.
A well functioning digestive system is critical to good health and goes way beyond being free of bloating or stomach aches. Digestion is often dismissed as a straightforward process. We eat food, nutrients from the food get absorbed and the waste gets eliminated. It is indeed a brilliant but far more complex system that does not work independently but can in fact be directly related to autoimmune diseases, neurological function and skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis (to name a few) so never ignore any gastrointestinal (GI) issues.
Identifying food culprits
Pharmaceutical companies make very good money from ranges of products designed to relieve the symptoms of bloating through chemical action, but they do not address the cause.
The best way to deal with it by far is to listen to your own body and try to relate what you have eaten to how you are feeling. If you see a pattern occurring, then try cutting out those foods for four weeks and see how you feel. Keeping a food diary can be the best way to identify if specific foods are the culprit to your symptoms.
There is no one size fits all answer; our bodies are as different as our personalities. For me it is gluten and aubergine. I love aubergine, sliced and slow roasted overnight with peppers and mozzarella or a delicious bowl of spaghetti arrabiata, but alas the brief pleasure on the lips is simply not worth spending the night feeling like an anaconda that’s eaten a deer. It is relegated to fond memories of past pleasures. From my experience with clients, some of the foods that can cause reactions include gluten and wheat , dairy , sugar , eggs, fruits, grains and pulses but never forget, we are all individual and it is down to you to be mindful of what you are eating and how it makes you feel.
Chew for a flatter tum
Once you have identified any disagreeing foods, it’s then important to deal with other factors that could be aggravating your gut – it’s rare that digestive symptoms are isolated to only one factor so don’t assume it is only or always food. The digestive process starts in the mouth and chewing combines food with enzymes to break it down before it enters the stomach. If you were brought up in a large family and competed with your siblings for food you may have a tendency to inhale, not chew. It is not uncommon for whole prawns to go straight from fork to gullet with barely a nibble. Put your fork down between bites, really concentrate on chewing and don’t pick it up until you have swallowed the last mouthful. Remember we don’t have teeth inside our stomach; they are in our mouth for a purpose so if you want a flat tummy, then chew, chew, chew!
Your stomach's ability to digest food further – pea soup consistency is the aim so that nutrients can be absorbed further down in the small intestine – is dependent on stomach acids. Using muscles, like a washing machine, the food gets mixed up with the acids. This stomach acid also acts as an antibacterial agent, killing off bacteria in our food and water and is dependent on some vitamins such as vitamin B12. But as we age, we produce less of these acids and throw on top antacid medications, low nutrient diet, stress, not chewing and possibly infections such as helicobacter pylori, you can see how challenged the stomach's role in digestion can be. I often suggest a digestive enzyme that contains the enzymes required to digest fats, proteins and carbohydrates – lipase, protease and amylase.
Our food then moves into our small intestine, where it is mixed with pancreatic enzymes. If our stomach hasn’t been able to do its job properly, then large particles of food can enter our small intestine, which can launch our internal army, our immune system. So picture this - if you don’t chew, eat in a hurry, eat low nutrient foods and take antacids – you basically have invited Arnold Schwarzenegger and his machine gun into your body! And our body can’t absorb nutrients if the food particles are still intact. See, it’s just not so simple!
Good bacteria or bad bacteria?
Next is our internal ecosystem. Our colony of bacteria. Our cells are in fact outnumbered by bacteria, meaning that we are more bacterial beings than human beings! We have had the concept that bacteria are “bad” drummed into our heads and so we live in an environment with antibacterial hand washes and antibiotics at every sniff. But this also kills off the bacteria that we really, really need. Sadly this has been detrimental for our guts and our health. Taking a good quality probiotic (friendly bacteria) and eating prebiotic foods (such as fermented foods), which help to nourish the good bacteria.
So this is just a simple scratching of the surface. Constipation, bile acids, bacteria balance, stress and emotional health and lifestyle can all further impact how our digestive system functions, which can cause symptoms such as bloating. But I know how you all like a checklist, so here are my tips on how to deflate:
- Eat slowly and breathe.
- Chew your food properly.
- Take digestive enzymes (if you need to).
- Take a probiotic supplement daily. Not yoghurt or a drink, a good quality capsule or liquid with bacteria in the billions – avoid ones with marketing claims and ideally get advice on which are the most beneficial.
- Eat prebiotic foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi, which help good bacteria to thrive.
- Ensure daily bowel movements by keeping hydrated, eating vegetables and fruit at all meals, exercising and eating healthy fats from nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocados, coconut and olive oils.
- Do whatever you can to manage stress and emotional wellbeing.Meditation, counselling or therapy, exercise and yoga are all considered to be beneficial.
- See a nutritional therapist who can carry out functional tests to help identify the underlying causes of your symptoms and guide you personally towards the right nutritional advice for your needs.