Beating the Bloat: Understanding and Tackling Common Digestive Distress

It’s pretty standard to think of your stomach when you think of digestive or gut health problems. But your gut encompasses so much more than your stomach; it includes your entire gastrointestinal tract from the mouth through to the anus.

According to Holland & Barrett’s 2023 UK Gut Health Report, one of the most common gut symptoms is bloating or gas, with 51% of respondents experiencing this. But while it may be common, only a certain amount of bloating is considered normal. So, let’s dig into why you might look and feel six months pregnant after most meals.

What Is Bloating?

Bloating happens when there is a build-up of gas in the digestive tract, and you’ll know when you have it as the abdomen becomes distended and enlarged.

You’ll experience feeling full and may find yourself unbuttoning that top button on your jeans as the stomach area expands and your clothing feels restrictive. Bloating may also be associated with abdominal pain, discomfort or cramping.

Bloating following a meal may be a sign of an impaired digestive system, and any attempt to prevent or reduce bloating should involve looking at the underlying cause.

Why Am I Bloated?

Bloating occasionally may happen after eating too quickly or overindulging in a meal. Chronic bloating, however, requires a deeper look at what’s causing gas build-up.

Gases, like hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen, are produced when the microbes in your gut feast on the food in your gut, generating and releasing gases as a by-product.

Causes of Bloating

As you’ll see below, bloating can occur at various points throughout the digestive tract. Still, a shared feature of the six typical causes of bloating is undigested food that provides the bacteria and other microbes with food to ferment.

Stress

We often think that digestion starts in the mouth. However, it actually begins in the brain with the sight, smell or anticipation of food. This kicks the digestive process into gear, causing the release of saliva in the mouth and digestive secretions like stomach acid all ready and waiting for the arrival of food. Digestion is less effective when we eat on the go or are stressed. We have one stress response that can be activated by many things we perceive as stressors. When we are stressed, the body gets into survival mode. In this state, digestion is slowed or stopped, so all of the body’s resources can be directed towards survival. This leaves plenty of opportunity for the microbes in your digestive tract to ferment your food, leading to bloating.

 

Recommendation

It’s much easier said than done, but whatever you can do to minimise stress in your life, your body will thank you. Many simple relaxation strategies can help you transform stress. Take a few minutes to focus on breathing deeply, visualise a scene that relaxes you, or journal about a challenging situation. Find something that appeals to you and work it into your daily routine.

Additionally, consider cooking your meals more often. Not only will preparing your meals support getting your body ready for digesting and absorbing those nutrients, but fewer processed and ultra-processed meals and snacks will also support your digestive health and provide a host of other health benefits.

 

Dysbiosis

The body loves balance, and your gut microbiome is no different. Over 100 trillion bacteria, viruses and fungi live in the digestive tract. Some of these gut microbes are beneficial and provide essential vitamins like vitamin K, vital in blood clotting, helping the body better respond to insulin and absorb minerals. These beneficial types live in relative harmony with other less helpful, potentially problematic microbes. However, diets high in sugar and processed foods (including ultra-processed foods) and lifestyle factors like not moving much, stress and poor sleep can all promote the overgrowth of potentially pathogenic bacteria, the loss of beneficial bacteria and a loss of overall bacterial diversity, leading to an imbalance in the gut microbiome known as dysbiosis. Several symptoms can result from dysbiosis, including bloating, constipation and other digestive issues, broader body concerns like aching joints, acne and skin rashes, as well as anxiety, low mood and fatigue.

 

Recommendation

Dysbiosis is identified through microbiome testing, and once this is established, an approach to restore balance to the gut microbiome can be developed. Generally, this involves ‘weeding, seeding and feeding’: weeding out bacteria, yeast, and parasite infections, seeding with probiotics from food or supplements and feeding with healthy microbiome-loving foods.

 

Food Sensitivities + Intolerances

Some people struggle to digest certain foods like dairy because they lack the necessary enzymes to break them down. This leads to undigested foods passing through the gut into the large intestines, where the bacteria ferment the food and generate several different gases, including methane and other gases.

Excess gas may also trigger stomach pain, tightness, abdominal rumblings, or flatulence.

 

Recommendation

If you think food sensitivities and intolerances may be the reason for your bloating, you may benefit from an elimination diet. This short dietary intervention is personalised and guided by an appropriate health professional to help identify foods that may exacerbate your digestive issues. 

Keeping a food diary may also help. This allows you to monitor what you eat and how it affects you. Food-related intolerances and sensitivities can manifest as skin problems, energy issues, and typical digestion and bowel complaints.

 

SIBO

SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, is a form of dysbiosis that occurs when excess bacteria are in the small intestine. For people whose bodies struggle with fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyol or FODMAP-rich foods, the small intestine may not fully absorb these carbohydrates, leaving them to pass through to the large intestine. In a healthy gut, there are relatively few bacteria in the small intestine, but for those with SIBO, the bacteria in their small intestine will start to ferment these carbohydrates, causing bloating. FODMAP foods include:

  • Wheat, onions, garlic and beans (Oligosaccharides).
  • Milk, ice cream and yoghurt (disaccharides).
  • Honey, apples and pears (monosaccharides).
  • Cauliflower, chewing gum, and apricots (Polyols). 

 

Recommendation

SIBO is usually identified via a breath test to measure the levels of methane and hydrogen after consuming a sugar solution. If SIBO is found, a plan to address and resolve SIBO can begin. It usually involves targeted herbal antimicrobials, gut-supportive supplements, and diet and lifestyle modifications. 

 

Constipation

Another common cause of bloating is constipation. Having fewer bowel movements than you typically would is a sign of constipation, although it’s still possible to be constipated while having regular bowel movements. More obvious signs include:

  • ‘Rock and pebble’ like stools.
  • Straining to start or finish a bowl movement.
  • Not feeling empty after a bowel movement.  

As with the previous causes for bloating, the longer the stool remains in your colon, the more opportunity the bacteria have to ferment it and produce the gases that cause bloating. Aside from bloating, constipation may also contribute to abdominal pain as the gas builds up and distends the large intestine and colon walls. Chronic constipation could also negatively impact hormonal health.

 

Recommendation

Constipation can be resolved through diet and lifestyle strategies such as increasing hydration with water and herbal teas, eating a more fibre-rich diet, and engaging in regular movement and exercise.

 

 

Gastroparesis

Gastroparesis is a functional disorder affecting the nerves and muscles, where food passes through the stomach slower than it should. The stomach muscle contractions become weaker and slower, causing food to stay in the stomach for too long, preventing it from being passed on to the intestines. The symptoms of gastroparesis include feeling full sooner than usual, feeling nauseous and actually being sick, tummy pain, bloating and heartburn. Gastroparesis can develop after certain types of surgery and poorly managed diabetes.

 

Recommendation

The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK suggests that diet changes, medication, and other treatments can help improve some of the symptoms of gastroparesis.

About

Hello, I’m Leah! Functional health consultant and founder of The Thrive Practice. Driven by data and supported by science, I’m unerringly obsessed with exploring your unique biochemistry to methodically get to the root of your health issues. So, you can achieve real and lasting relief.

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