Bloating is a very common condition to experience. In fact, when asked, as many as 10-30% of healthy individuals reported that they regularly felt bloating. However, when IBS sufferers were asked the same question 90% reported bloating as being one of their main symptoms, with a higher occurrence found in women than men. When discussing bloating it is important to differentiate between bloating and distension.
So, what is the difference?
Bloating describes a feeling of fullness or inﬂation in the abdomen which can happen without any visible physical changes whereas with distension you can actually see an increase in the size of the abdomen. Nowadays, after eating, many people refer to it as having a ‘food baby’ because the tummy is so distended that it looks as though they are pregnant. Bloating and distension can be experienced separately as well as simultaneously, but they both share similar effects.
Bloating and distension tend to be caused by a build-up of gas in the digestive system and regular features of them can include:
- Increasing in effect as the day goes on. (For example, that feeling of not being able to wait to take your constrictive clothes off and put comfy, stretchable clothes on when you get home.)
- It happens temporarily after a meal.
- It tends to reduce naturally overnight.
What is normal bloating?
It is perfectly normal to have a small amount of bloating after eating a meal because it is naturally caused by the process of eating and digesting food and it then moving through the intestinal system. If you feel gas moving in your abdomen or a bit of tightness after eating this is all normal if it passes with no real discomfort.
What is not normal bloating?
It is not normal if you experience bloating with: pain; nausea; heartburn; diarrhoea; cramps; excessive wind; or foul-smelling wind. If your bloating comes with any other symptoms you should speak to your doctor especially if the bloating persists and you have a constant feeling of fullness all the time.
If you often feel bloated it could be due to:
Eating too fast: Not chewing food properly before swallowing it can cause bloating. This is because saliva in the mouth starts to break down proteins as you chew. If you are not chewing your food enough then saliva is not being distributed through the food, so it makes it harder for your body to digest the food. So, follow your grandmother’s advice and “Chew each mouthful 20 times before swallowing!”.
- Caffeinated or fizzy drinks: Caffeine in these drinks act as a stimulant which causes the gut to spasm. Also, the bubbles in fizzy drinks contain carbon dioxide which puts gas directly into your digestive system, leading to feelings of bloating and distension.
- Chewing gum: This is one of the first questions I ask patients during a digestive health consultation because most sugar-free chewing gum contains sorbitol which is a laxative that can cause gut issues, such as bloating.
- Skipping meals: Long gaps between meals can cause your body to produce excessive wind and bloating.
- Tight clothing: We can all be found guilty of wearing clothing that is too tight. However, if the clothes constrict the abdomen it makes it harder for food and gas to pass through the digestive system, causing discomfort.
- Large meals: When you eat too much food in one sitting it all arrives in your gut at the same time which forces the digestive system to work harder and can cause discomfort.
- Drinking fluids while eating: It is best to avoid drinking while eating a meal because it dilutes your digestive juices. Saliva contains amylase (an enzyme which breaks down the starch in foods), so if you drink liquids while eating it makes your digestive juices less effective, leading to bloating. As a result, try to drink fluids in between meals.
- Monitor your food intake: Certain foods can naturally produce gas during digestion, such as beans, cabbage, onions, sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower. However, they are nutritionally beneficial, so if you can tolerate them try to include smaller portions of them within your diet.
- Holding in a motion (poo): Many people feel uncomfortable about passing a motion in public, communal or workplace toilets. This is understandable, but doing this can cause a build-up of gas and unnecessary bloating.
- Increasing fibre too quickly: Increasing your fibre intake too much too quickly can cause the gut to work harder as it struggles with the elevated amount. This can lead to increased wind and bloating. As a result, it is best to increase your fibre intake gradually over a few weeks to try and prevent this.
- Stress: Stress is renowned for causing upset to the gut because of the tight gut-brain connection. In order to combat this, try to take time to relax and de-stress.
- Eating position: If you are eating most of your meals off your lap or bent over a desk this can restrict the movement of food through your digestive system leading to wind and bloating. To prevent this, sit comfortably at a table and try to eat your meal slowly and mindfully. Talking and eating at the same time also makes you swallow air, so try to finish your mouthful before speaking.
- Hormonal Changes: It is common for women to experience bloating during or around the time of their menstrual period. The fluctuations in progesterone and oestrogen levels can cause the digestive system to become sluggish and cause water retention, bloating, and constipation. Similar symptoms can be experienced during menopause.
- Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO): SIBO is a condition in which the amount of bacteria within the small intestine increases. This means that more food can be fermented by the bacteria in the gut which leads to increased gas and bloating.
Strategies to avoid bloating
Whatever the cause, there are some strategies that we can use to prevent bloating – with some as simple as drinking water! Check out some easy strategies below:
All of these tips will help with your bloating, but if problems persist consult your doctor.
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