Bloating is the single most common digestive complaint afflicting people today, with millions around the world suffering from it, yet it is also one of the least understood. We try to do all the right things — avoid common allergens and inflammatory foods like gluten, sugar, and dairy, limit processed foods, exercise regularly — and yet still find ourselves with uncomfortably swollen abdomens after virtually every meal.
It has certainly plagued my life for as long as I can remember, and I worry about it constantly. It’s stressful, it’s embarrassing, and it often leaves me feeling utterly defeated — all of which, of course, only exacerbates the issue. I have tried everything to rid myself of this seeming curse, but unless I’m depriving myself and eating like a bird, very little seems to help.
Fortunately, gastroenterologist Robynne Chutkan has taken some of the guesswork out of this unwelcome visitor by compiling the most common bloating culprits into her latest book, The Bloat Cure. “I wanted to create a guide for women to be their own medical detectives,” says Dr. Chutkan. “Bloating is absolutely is the number one thing I see in my practice. It’s sort of that common, non-specific way for the GI tract to let you know it’s unhappy.”
“To a layperson, our digestive tract can feel like this empty tube, but people don’t appreciate how specialized it is,” she continues. “There are so many different things happening in different parts, and so many things that can go wrong.” This complexity is what makes identifying and treating the root cause of bloating so difficult.
So if you’ve taken care of the diet piece and are still struggling with bloating, the following list of 8 common mistakes may help you banish this digestive demon for good.
1. Distracted Eating
The Problem: Do you scroll through your Instagram feed while eating? Reply to work emails, text your friends, or read the news? Then you are among a growing population of people for whom multitasking has become an essential, habitual part of life. As our lives get busier and our attention spans shorter, we begin to treat every moment as an opportunity to be entertained, productive, or both. Eating lunch while sitting at our desks and continuing to work has become standard practice in many offices, and sit-down family dinners, where people connect with one another and reestablish bonds over a leisurely meal, have almost disappeared entirely.
The loss of this important social ritual has obvious implications for our psychological well-being, but its impact on our digestion, while less immediately apparent, is no less profound. According to Dr. Chutkan, aerophagia — aka swallowing air — is becoming more common as we become less mindful of the process of eating. “A lot of people with aerophagia feel like they have acid reflux, but they’ve been on drugs for months and aren’t any better,” she says. “There’s often a waxing and waning to it; they don’t necessarily start the day feeling full.” Essentially, the faster we eat, the more air we gulp down, and the more bloated and gassy we feel.
The Solution: Eat slowly and mindfully, paying attention to the taste and texture of every bite. This not only prevents the ingestion of excessive air, but also inhibits overeating. The more we pay attention to what we’re eating and the more slowly we eat it, the more time the brain has to receive the “I’m full” message from the gut, and the less food we consume overall.
You should also sit down for your meals rather than eating while standing or on the go, and take several deep, calming breaths before beginning your meal to allow your autonomic nervous system to leave the “fight or flight” state and enter its “rest and digest” state.
The Problem: Only recently have we discovered that a healthy microbiome is essential for good mental health, and how strongly the two are linked. Eve Kalinik, a UK-based certified nutritional therapist, explains that “recent research has directly [shown] the microbiome influences neurotransmitters in the brain, affecting the way that we think and feel,” and “certain strains of beneficial bacteria can themselves produce many of the same mood-positive chemicals used in brain signaling, such as dopamine, serotonin, and GABA.” Researchers are even experimenting with replacing antidepressants with probiotics, with promising results thus far.
We have also discovered a link between low serotonin levels in the gut and depression, with constipation and bloating being the result, and unfortunately, many antidepressant medications themselves cause bloating, making this mental illness a double digestive whammy.
The Solution: To combat the bloating effects of depression, Dr. Chutkan recommends both talk therapy and exercise, a well established and potent mood booster. “Movement helps to lift the mood, and it doesn’t have to be intense to get a little bit of an endorphin rush,” Chutkan says.
Have trouble motivating yourself to exercise? Check out these seven ways to banish those excuses for good.
The Problem: Despite the pervasiveness of the ‘eight glasses a day’ myth, the amount of water we need to stay hydrated varies widely from person to person and from situation to situation. You might know that caffeine, a diuretic, saps your water reserves, but did you also know that spending too much time in air conditioning or even taking antihistamines has the same effect? As far as our digestion goes, when we get dehydrated our intestines become less lubricated, resulting in stagnation and then, of course, bloating.
The Solution: The easiest and most effective way to ensure your fluid intake is adequate is not to tally up your glasses of water each day but to monitor the colour of your urine — the paler the better. And the best way to stay hydrated throughout the day is to keep water with you at all times and sip steadily, even if you’re not thirsty. This also helps prevent overeating, since hunger is often thirst disguised. The next time you feel hunger pangs, try drinking a glass of water first and see what happens. You might be surprised to find out it was water you wanted, not food!
4. Skipping Meals
The Problem: You’ve probably experienced this before: You went all day without eating, becoming ravenously hungry in the process, then scarfed down an enormous meal when you finally found time to eat. From there, you promptly felt as if your belly were about to explode.
Skipping meals is a surefire way to ensure that your stomach bloats when you do finally eat. “If there are long periods of time where nothing’s moving through the gut, it becomes a little bit inactive,” says Dr. Chutkan. So not only are you eating too quickly and not chewing your food sufficiently, your digestion itself has slowed down, all of which is a recipe for major bloating.
The Solution: The best way to avoid this is to fuel up regularly, eating both meals and snacks throughout the day, and eating well before you get to that desperate, hangry, empty-the-fridge level of hunger.
5. Haywire Hormones
The Problem: Estrogen dominance in women is becoming increasingly common, thanks largely to artificial hormones like the birth control pill and hormone replacement therapy, and it’s making us more bloated than ever before.
The Solution: To combat this problem, Dr. Chutkan recommends avoiding xenoestrogens, like those found in conventionally-raised produce and meat, plastics, and cleaning supplies, as well as considering alternative methods of birth control.
6. Post-Workout Pain Meds
The Problem: Sometimes even the most well-intentioned and well-informed personal trainers give poor advice, and the most common I’ve heard is recommending pain killers to combat muscle soreness. Aside from their questionable effects on our physical and mental well-being, they can also wreak havoc on our gut, particularly if it has already been compromised by chronic inflammation. Multiple studies have shown that pain killers worsen intestinal permeability, or leaky gut, as well as inflammation. “NSAIDS are super toxic to the GI tract, but because there’s so much marketing of these drugs, there’s this perception that they’re benign,” says Dr. Chutkan.
The Solution: She advices using over-the-counter pain meds sparingly and, more importantly, to opt for holistic options, like epsom salt baths or active recovery. “Every time you take something, you have to do a risk-benefit analysis,” she says. “There’s nothing you can take with no side effect. And the place you’re most likely to see a side effect is in your gut.”
7. Desk Jobs
The Problem: Is there no end to the ills of desk jobs? We know sitting all day wreaks havoc on our health, causing neck and back pain, decreasing blood flow throughout the body, and even accelerating the aging process. Sitting has also been linked to higher blood glucose levels and blood pressure, so the more we sit, the larger our waist circumference becomes.
Decreased blood flow also means that all your biological processes are slowed down, including digestion. When your GI tract is moving at this reduced speed, bloating is almost inevitable. “A lot of the people I see are lawyers—they’re literally at their desk for 14 hours in a row, five days a week, and then sitting even more at home,” says Dr. Chutkan. “It’s horrible for the gut, because we’re meant to be on the move,” she adds.
The other problem with sitting is that most people don’t eat less to make up for how few calories they’re expending. Indeed, many people graze at work or eat treats and fatty foods to either alleviate their boredom or get through the post-lunch slump. (I’ve been there.) Thinking still makes us hungry, but it doesn’t burn calories the way movement does. So not only are we eating too much compared to how little we’re moving, but our body is processing that food at a glacial rate.
The Solution: Fortunately, taking frequent breaks throughout the day can mitigate these harms. You should be out of your desk for a minimum of five minutes every hour. Use this time to do some stretches and restore blood flow to your limbs, or to walk a few laps around the office. If you need to speak with a coworker, get up and physically meet with them rather than emailing — I’ve seen people who were sitting two feet away from each other exchange emails, all to avoid getting out of their chairs!
Bonus: If you’re staying hydrated the way I described earlier, you’ll have to go to the bathroom more often, which means more opportunities to get up and stretch your legs!
The Problem: The only thing worse for our health (and bellies) and more endemic to modern society than sitting is stress.
As I mentioned previously when describing mindful eating, when our nervous system is fired up as a result of stress, our bodies enter the ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, halting digestion and releasing cortisol, the stress hormone linked to increased abdominal fat.
Evolutionarily speaking, says Dr. Chutkan, “when a T-Rex is upon us and we have to get away from it, it shunts blood flow away from the digestive tract to the big muscles in the legs and the heart so you can run.” These days we aren’t running from tigers or bears, but our lives are stressful in other ways, and unfortunately, our bodies can’t tell the difference. This means that for many of us, that stress state is constant. This not only slows down gut movement, but also affects the pH of our digestive tract and our enzyme and acid secretion.
The Solution: Aside from exercise, meditation is your complete well-being panacea, and it can alleviate anything from stress and anxiety to digestion and pain. I personally challenged myself to meditate every day for one month last year, and it changed my life. Within the first few days I saw my IBS symptoms improve drastically, going from having a bowel movement once or twice a week to one every day. Meditation is now an essential part of my self-care routine, and it has helped me to become happier, healthier, and calmer.
Unsure of how to get started? Try this short guided meditation, or visit headspace.com and download their meditation app. The first 10 meditations are free, and serve as a wonderful introduction to the practice. I use the app every day and cannot recommend it enough.
You can also check out some of these other natural anxiety fixes.
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