12 Tips to Beat The Bloat
‘Bloating’ may not sound like a big deal, but the truth is, it can leave us feeling anything from uncomfortable and embarrassed, to anxious and down. While for most of us, bloating is caused by tiny bubbles of gas being trapped in our intestinal tract, in some cases, it can be a symptom of other more serious health problems. Both heart burn and acid reflux as well as inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s or colitis can all lead to bloating and it can even be a sign of ovarian cancer.
This means that if we are unsure of the cause, it’s important to check-in with our GP to rule out any of these underlying conditions. Once we have a medical ‘all clear’ under our belt, the great news is that there are many things we can do to take control and beat the bloat.
Before you start, keep in mind that dietary and lifestyle causes of bloating are often idiosyncratic and so what triggers or helps a friend or relative may not be a cause or a solution for you and visa, versa. Remember too that confusingly, even in the same individual, its triggers can vary from one day.
Understanding this bigger picture helps us to understand that with time and patience we can work with our bodies to improve our long-term symptoms. A bit of effort now can save a lot of suffering and frustration in the weeks, months and years to come. Here, we pick 12 top tips for helping to beat the bloat.
1. Calm Life Down
When stressed, we tend to gulp down more air than usual through breathing more quickly and shallower than normal. Known as hyperventilating, the extra air we inhale turns into trapped bubbles in our gut that may cause pain and a swelling sensation. If one-off stress turns into long-term anxiety, swallowing extra air can turn into a daily occurrence. Trying to find the cause of anxiety and working on ways to reduce the sources in your life, may impact significantly on bloating.
2. Slow Down Mealtimes
Remember, rushing through meals also means that we gulp down extra air, which like hyperventilating can increase the air trapped in our guts and lead to waistbands looking and feeling extended. Sitting down to eat and concentrating on what we are doing rather than distractedly wolfing down food in a hurry can be one factor that can help to fix bloating.
3. Herbal Helping Hand
So too, can adding calming plant extracts to your daily routine. Medical herbalists believe that chamomile for example helps by working on anxiety centres in our brains. Ginger and fennel are recommended by traditional medicine practitioners in Persia (i) to treat bloating while peppermint oil has been proven to be a safe and effective therapy for adults with irritable bowel syndrome, in which bloating is a common feature. Extracts of both lemon balm and marshmallow are two other herbs which traditional healers and increasingly, western medicine is beginning to realise, helps to calm a turbulent digestive system.
4. Managing Fermentable Carbs
Peas and other pulses from lentils and chickpeas to red kidney and cannellini and beans all contain a type of carbohydrate that is poorly digested in our small intestine. This can cause two problems. Firstly, these carbs attract water into the gut, causing it to distend, stretch and bloat. Secondly, they then move, largely undigested into our colon, where they provide a food source for the bacteria present. Having enjoyed their hearty feast, these bacteria produce methane and hydrogen gases, which can also spark bloating. If you feel pulses have this effect, there are two steps you can try. It may be that avoiding them is your answer but, counter-intuitively, eating small amounts regularly may help as our guts can adapt and produce less gas in response to pulses over time.
5. Speed Up Your Gut
Many of us in the UK eat diets long on fat, sugar and salt and short on fibre. This makes the perfect recipe for constipation where poorly digested food and gases hang around in your intestine for longer than necessary, causing abdominal discomfort, hard stools, straining and bloating. Increasing fibre intake by eating wholegrain carbohydrates, having vegetables and fruit at meals and snacks and drinking plenty of water is a great place to start to help keep your gut moving at a healthy pace. Fibre supplements can also help, with psyllium husk having the strongest evidence from clinical trials for improving constipation. The fibre in psyllium absorbs water in your gut, making stools softer, bulkier and easier to pass.
These so called ‘good bacteria’ are live micro-organisms. Some types that have been proven to survive digestion in your stomach and small intestine and make it down into your colon where they grow and thrive appear to help symptoms of bloating. Well-studied probiotic strains include Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifdobacterium bifidum, which have been shown to help to improve bloating and distention and Lactobacillus lactis, which has been proven to improve overall symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome.
7. Fruity Matters
When you blend fruit to make smoothies, extra air gets incorporated into the drink. Eating the whole fruit instead helps you to lose another unwanted source of tiny gas filled, bloat-promoting bubbles entering your intestinal tract. Remember though, we can all react differently to different fruits. Peaches and plums contain a type of carb known as ‘polyols’, which can trigger gas production, while the particular simple sugars in apples can for other people, have a similar effect. Keeping a diary of what you eat and effects on bloating can help you to identify which fruits work for you and which you may be best replacing.
While upping our vegetables is usually seen as a ‘good’ thing, it’s worth accepting that some, just as with certain fruits, may be causing excessive gas production in our gut and quite simply, need to be weeded out. Reactions vary highly between individuals. Onions and garlic may be a culprit for some people, while for others it may be mushrooms, cauliflower, broccoli cabbage or swede. Again, keeping a diary of foods and bloating symptoms can help us to pinpoint potential vegetables to weed out and replace with others that keep our gut calm and healthy.
9. Could It Be Lactose?
A permanent and lifelong intolerance to lactose is a reality for some, which leads to severe bloating when even small amounts of dairy foods are consumed. For others, lactose intolerance may be transitory, after a stomach bug for instance or it may be that other people can tolerate small amounts in yoghurt and hard cheese but have a definite threshold before lactose triggers bloating. If you find yourself suddenly bloating after cappuccinos and lattes when they previously caused no trouble, try switching to fortified dairy alternatives for a while. If your bloating is relieved, you can stick with them or try introducing a little milk in a few weeks to time to gauge your guts reaction. Reduced lactose and lactose-free products can also be helpful as can lactose-digesting enzyme supplements containing lactase.
10. Fizzy For Flat Drinks and Giving Up Gum
Whether carbonated or naturally sparkling, these drinks contain pre-formed bubbles, which can almost instantly lead to bloating. Trade in sparkling water and fizzy drinks for still versions and see if you feel a difference. Chomping up and down on gum introduces yet more air into your intestines, which can form ‘pro-bloating’ pockets of gas. If you chew gum to freshen your breath and mouth after eating, carry a ‘travel’ toothbrush and use this instead.
11. Sugar Free Culprits
Sugar free mints and sweets that contain ‘sugar polyols’ such as sorbitol, mannitol and lactitol are certainly worth cutting out. Also known as ‘sugar alcohols’, these sweeteners are not completely digested in the small intestine and make it into your large intestine where they provide food for gas-producing bacteria. Within hours of eating this can lead to bloating and cramps. Everyone’s tolerance is different, and bloating tends to happen when you consume large amounts at one time, but it is worth cutting them out and monitoring how bloating responds.
12. Get Moving
And finally, even gentle exercise like walking each day can help to keep your digestive system working well, helping to speed up ‘transit’ times which may reduce bloating. Try to build some physical activity into everyday; whatever suits you, your body and your schedule. Something is always better than nothing.
Prevention and Treatment of Flatulence From a Traditional Persian Medicine Perspective. Bagher L. et al. Iran Red Crescent Med J. 2016 Apr; 18(4): e23664. Published online 2016 Jan 31. doi: 10.5812/ircmj.23664