Bloating. That uncomfortable sensation when the stomach swells, feels stretched, full and tight. A feeling of sluggishness usually accompanies this, making it harder to find that ‘get up and go’; in fact, quite the opposite; bloating can make us feel heavy and slow, sometimes having a knock-on effect on motivation and energy levels.
Causes of bloating
Bloating is a condition where the abdomen becomes inflated, usually caused by a buildup of intestinal gas, which ultimately needs to escape; so bloating is, for many, accompanied by excessive gas and feelings of discomfort or pain. Bloating can also be caused by food accumulating in the stomach (irregular passing of stools) and water retention.
Gas is present in the intestinal tract in all of our bodies but too much gas can lead to bloating; excessive burping, and/or flatulence. Gas is usually released from the body anywhere between 5 - 20 times a day by burping or flatulence.1 This process is quite normal and, of course, essential; though for many it’s embarrassing and not deemed an appropriate practice for “polite society.” But it would appear that those of us affected by bloating and gas are not suffering alone; digestive problems are reported to be one of the most common reasons we seek medical help from your doctor or local chemist. Dr Anton Emmanuel, consultant gastroenterologist at University College Hospital in London states that approximately 40% of people have at least one digestive symptom at any one time.2
Causes of Gas
Our bodies are designed to produce gas; it’s an essential and normal byproduct of the human digestive system. The body produces gas as a result of the process of digestion whereby bacteria in the large intestine works to break down and digest the food we consume, producing carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane, which then needs to exit the body. Certain food and drink will produce more gas, but not all people react to the same foods/drinks and it’s common for some food to produce gas in some people and not others.
Gas is also produced by the body when we take too much air into the gastrointestinal tract. Naturally, we all swallow some air while we’re drinking, eating and talking, but the problem of excessive gas, released in the form of burping or flatulence, can occur if an excessive amount of air is swallowed. Any swallowed air that isn’t burped out, travels into the small or large intestine, where it leaves the body as flatulence.3 Breathing through the mouth can also cause us to swallow too much air. Usually, any surplus air is released by being belched back out. If we are primarily breathing through the mouth rather than the nose, however, this can cause a buildup of air, which, if not got rid of through burping, can travel from the stomach into the small intestine, leading to issues with digestion, stomach cramps, bloating and extreme bouts of flatulence.4
How to avoid excessive swallowed air
Nasal breathing. Breathing through the nose (as opposed to mouth breathing) can significantly decrease the problem of excessive gas. In addition to this "Nasal breathing increases circulation, blood oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, slows the breathing rate and improves overall lung volumes”5
- Slowing the process of eating and drinking down and chewing food thoroughly, can help avoid swallowing too much air.
- Avoid chewing gum and sucking sweets which can increase intake of swallowed air.
- Stop or reduce smoking. Smoking can lead to more air being swallowed.6
- If you wear dentures ensure they are fitted well; loose fitting dentures can cause the wearer to swallow more air.
The intestines can struggle to digest and absorb certain carbohydrates, unrefined cereal fibre and complex sugars in food, which instead travel into the colon and are broken down by bacteria, which produces gas, which is then released from the body as flatulence.7 Though certain food and drink produces gas in some and not others, some food and drink are renowned for producing excess gas, such as:
Onions; beans; dairy products (particularly milk) garlic; lentils; barley; wheat; rye; prunes; apples and some other fruits; broccoli, cabbage (and other cruciferous vegetables) carbonated drinks; and beer. 8
Certain other substances can adversely affect the digestive system of some people causing bloating and gas, such as: monosodium glutamate (MSG) caffeine; alcohol; artificial sweeteners/sugar alcohols (sugar replacements found in sugar-free foods and chewing gums, such as xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol) histamine (found in Quorn, mushrooms, pickled and cured foods, and alcoholic drinks) artificial food colours, preservatives or flavour enhancers.9
Gas can also be caused by certain health conditions to do with the digestive system, or as a side effect of some medicines.
Dietary intolerances and sensitivities:
Lactose intolerance and fructose intolerance are common and a common cause of excessive gas, bloating and stomach pain.
Lactose is a sugar present in dairy products. Lactose intolerance is when the body is unable to digest lactose. This happens when there isn’t enough of the enzyme, lactase, which is synthesised in the small intestine and required to digest lactose. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include cramps and abdominal pain; nausea; bloating; excessive and painful gas; and diarrhea.10
Fructose is a fruit sugar present in fruit juice and used as a sweetener in some soft drinks. If fructose isn’t absorbed properly it’s fermented by bacteria or gut flora in the lower bowel which produces gas and chemical substances, including short-chain fatty acids. Symptoms include bloating; increased gas; abdominal cramps and pain; diarrhea or constipation; reflux (acid taste in mouth, heartburn), nausea or vomiting.11
Similarly, a wheat sensitivity and gluten intolerance can also bring about the symptoms of bloating and cramps in some people, caused by the body struggling to digest these substances.
Dietary changes to prevent bloating and gas
Eating smaller and more frequent meals and ensuring food is chewed properly and eaten slowly can help the process of digestion.
Avoid foods that produce excessive gas. This can vary from person to person, but as we’ve seen, there are certain foods that are more likely to exacerbate this problem. Try replacing ‘gassy’ vegetables, such as cabbage and brussel sprouts, with spinach, lettuce or kale which don’t generally produce bloating and gas.
Reduce or avoid carbonated drinks.
Avoid highly processed and refined foods which tend to contain carbohydrates and sugars that the intestine struggles to breakdown and absorb.
Drink plenty of water. Water helps the body to breakdown food so that we can absorb nutrients from food and helps to flush waste from the intestines. Keeping our body hydrated is essential for all bodily functions to operate efficiently. Try drinking lemon water; packed with Vitamin C, it can also help soothe the digestive system.
Try introducing fermented food into your diet, such as sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi and tempeh which are packed with probiotics which help keep the digestive-tract healthy and can help boost healthy gut bacteria which aids the process of digestion.
Eat plenty of probiotic yoghurt containing good bacteria which can help keep the digestive tract happy and promote a healthy gut.
Some supplements and probiotics like those containing Lactobacillus casei and Saccharomyces boulardii can help reduce bloating and gas and aid healthy digestion.
Supplements to reduce bloating and gas and to ease digestion
Activated charcoal is a fine black powder with highly absorbent properties and is thought to be able to absorb the toxins of practically any chemical present in the digestive tract.
In the same way, it’s thought to be able to absorb the acids and gases that build up in the gut that can cause bloating and discomfort.12
Lactobacillus acidophilus is a type of lactic acid bacteria which rapidly ferments carbohydrates (sugar containing foods) and release lactic acids. This microorganism is classified under gram-positive bacteria.13 This highly effective probiotic could assist in the battle against bloating, ease digestion and generally improve the health of the colon and digestive system. To properly absorb nutrients, synthesise vitamins, and eliminate waste effectively the intestines need certain levels of probiotics or ‘friendly’ bacteria. The word probiotic translates to 'for life'. ‘Friendly’ bacteria in the colon helps to break down any uric acid present there that didn’t leave the body via the kidneys. A Probiotics supplement such as Lactobacillus acidophilus can help the life of the gut and actively improve digestion by helping to maintain a properly working digestive system.14 Lactobacillus acidophilus is an all-rounder as far as digestive health goes and can help ease the whole process of digestion.
Oxford Vitality provide Acidophilus tablets which are a small and very manageable 6mm in diameter, and just 150mg in weight which makes them very easy to swallow. You are advised not to take this with a hot drink as this will destroy the live bacteria.15
Ginger, as we commonly know it is sourced from the plant, Zingiber Officinale. It's a native plant of South-East Asia, but is now typically grown in Africa, Latin America, Australia and the Caribbean. The best habitat for it to thrive is the undergrowth of subtropical rainforests, such as where it was first native, India. Ginger comes from the same family as Turmeric (Curcuma Longa), and so has very similar effects.
The bulb that we traditionally use is technically a branched rhizome, and is the section of the plant that grows underground. The rhizome has a brown/beige thick outer skin, and within is a fleshy pale yellow spiced centre containing the essential oils and flavours we typically recognise as ginger. The active ingredients of ginger are essential oils called Shogaols and Gingerols which have a particularly beneficial effect on the digestive system.16
Ginger helps stimulate saliva, bile and gastric juice production which can aid digestion. By helping to improve the digestive system, ginger could be our best friend as far as preventing bloating goes, as well as having a positive impact on reducing intestinal gas and reducing flatulence. Ginger has the capability to act as a muscle relaxant in the gastrointestinal tract enabling trapped gases to pass out of the body with ease, while helping to reduce a bloated stomach in the process. With its ability to generally support a healthy digestive system, ginger will also naturally lessen the amount of gas produced in the body which in turn can help with flatulence issues.17
Papain and Bromelain are digestive enzymes. Papain is the primary proteolytic enzyme of the Papaya Fruit and can help support the anti-inflammatory processes within the body. It’s commonly used to aid oedema and fluid retention following trauma, or surgery. Bromelain is a proteolytic enzyme that’s found in the juice of Pineapples. Bromelain has been linked with health claims that state a reduction in inflammation throughout the whole body and is a natural digestive aid, particularly effective for bloating, gas and to aid digestive conditions. Both Papain and Bromelain are thought to help the body breakdown and digest protein, and have anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce swelling and inflammation in the colon.18
The Psyllium Husk is a fibre that is made from the seed husks of the Ispaghula, Plantago Ovato. It’s a native plant of East Asia, the Mediterranean, and India. For many thousands of years the Psyllium Husk has been used in Western herbal medicine, for ailments such as constipation, diarrhoea, and problems of the genito-urinary tract. Due to its biological structure it is classified as an indigestible fibre, it is non-calorific and helps to bulk the contents of the gut. It’s approximately 30% insoluble fibre and 70% soluble fibre. Psyllium fibre is thought to be 8 times better than the fibre provided from oats. The structure is made up of hemicellulose, a type of thick viscous fibre produced for strengthening cell walls.
The primary benefit of the Psyllium Husk is its contribution to digestive regularity and health of the gut and colon, which produces regular and healthy bowel movements to ease pain and discomfort located in the gut. It can also contribute to feelings of satiety, leading to reduced consumption and regulation of blood cholesterol/lipids.19
Artichoke has some amazing health benefits and is praised for its ability to improve gut flora, which can help reduce symptoms related to digestive problems, such as bloating and gas. Artichokes possess flavonoid silymarin, a potent antioxidant, which can help to protect the health of the liver. Artichokes also contain cynarin, a substance believed to activate the production of bile in the liver, which is essential for digestion and the absorption of nutrients.
It’s the leaves of the artichoke which hold many of the potent nutrients and Artichoke leaf extract can help ease symptoms associated with too much gas, such as bloating and flatulence and can help ease the symptoms of digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Artichoke’s high fiber content, anti-inflammatory action, and health boosting effects on the gut lining and liver can help soothe the whole digestive system and ease pain and discomfort.20
With the number of people in the UK troubled by digestive problems rising (figures from a study show 70% of people suffer regularly from stomach issues such such as bloating and gas)21 now would be a good time to look at our diets and in particular the health of our guts; after all it is here that most of the body’s immunity lies and the health of the digestive system is paramount to the health of the entire body. By getting to know our own bodies and dietary needs; being mindful about the food and drink we consume; and giving our digestive system a helping hand by taking a combination of the right supplements, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Ginger tablets; we can help our digestive tract and gut flora to stay happy and healthy, meaning we can get on with living life instead of feeling bloated, slow and sluggish. Surely it’s time to go with gut instinct; and make the whole body happy?!
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1 The Digestive System and Gas: http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/chronic-diarrhea-16/gas-causes-treatments
3 Aerophagia – Why Swallowed Air Causes Digestion Problems: http://flatulencecures.com/aerophagia-swallowed-air-digestion-problems
4 American College of Gastroenterology:http://patients.gi.org/topics/belching-bloating-and-flatulence/
5 Swift, Campbell, McKown 1988 Oronasal obstruction, lung volumes, and arterial oxygenation. Lancet 1, 73-75 Retrieved from:http://www.breathing.com/articles/nose-breathing.htm
8 13 Foods That Cause Bloating:https://authoritynutrition.com/13-foods-that-cause-bloating/
10 Gas, Bloating: Always uncomfortable? http://www.webmd.com/diet/gas-bloating-always-uncomfortable?page=1
11 Fructose Intolerance:http://foodintolerances.org/intolerances/fructose-intolerance/