Bloating is by far the most common complaint I get in my holistic health practice—and for good reason. It's uncomfortable, makes your clothes feel tight, and is often accompanied by gas, pain, and unusual bowel movements. The list of digestive dysfunctions that cause bloating is a long one and can involve some serious gut health issues.
While working with a qualified health care practitioner may be necessary in some cases, there are also many steps you can take at home to get a jump-start on your digestive health and rid yourself of the bloat. Here are five of the most common reasons for bloating, and what you can start doing about it today:
1. Eating on the go
Too many meals today are eaten in a hurry—while standing up, working at a desk, driving, checking Facebook, talking on the phone, or zoned out watching Friends reruns. Here's the problem: Our digestive function only works optimally when we're relaxed, calm, and mentally prepared for food. This is known as the parasympathetic state of our nervous system, or "rest and digest" mode. Today's world leaves little room for us to get into this mode at all. Instead, we spend a large chunk of our days go-go-going in a sympathetic mode, also known as "fight or flight."
Eating on the go means proper digestive function doesn't happen. Our brains don't communicate with the gut, informing it that food is on the way, and the engine never revs. We don't take the time to chew thoroughly, so food passes on before it is primed. We now have partially digested food sitting in the stomach without a working engine to keep it moving! This allows the food to ferment and produce gas. Bloating ensues.
What to do: Enjoy mealtime again! Eat mindfully, which means taking the time to sit, put away distractions, and take a few deep breaths before you begin your meal. Enjoy the sight, smell, and taste of your food. Put your fork down between bites.
2. Low stomach acid
Many of us are dealing with too little stomach acid—likely due to stress, medication, and weak digestive function—which can wreak serious havoc on the rest of your digestion. In order for the stomach to do its job, it needs to be highly acidic. If it's not, the ingested food won't move on downstream—not to mention, the pancreas won't be triggered to release enzymes to continue to break down the food, and the liver won't secrete bile to emulsify the dietary fats. Once again, you have partially digested food stuck in your stomach for far too long. Cue the bloat.
What to do: Support your stomach acid production. A shot of diluted raw apple cider vinegar (one tablespoon in two to three ounces of water) 15 minutes before a meal can help with mild cases. More severe cases might need to ask a health care practitioner about supplementing with betaine HCL at every meal. It is important to find your dose and stay consistent while your body relearns the process on its own.
3. Leaky gut
We've been hearing a lot about "leaky gut" in the holistic health world lately—and for good reason! Leaky gut, also known as gut permeability, is another really big deal when it comes to your digestive health. In short, leaky gut happens when undigested food particles make their way out of the digestive tract and into your bloodstream via small fissures in the lining of your small intestine. This causes a response from your immune system because suddenly there are foreign invaders in your blood and an attack is necessary. The immune system produces antibodies toward this invader (i.e., your lunch) and food intolerances are formed. Now, every time you eat that food, the body will launch the attack, and you won't feel good.
Until those fissures in the small intestine are sealed back up, this will keep happening and you will keep having issues like bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea at mealtime.
Why does leaky gut happen in the first place? The standard American food supply is the biggest factor. Mass-produced grains and inflammatory foods like sugar, alcohol, commercial dairy, and processed, packaged foods are all drivers in the formation of a leaky gut. Bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections can also lead to gut permeability. And of course, stress also plays a huge role.
What to do: Eliminate inflammatory foods like grains, dairy, refined sugars, packaged foods, and toxins from your life for a minimum of 30 days. Even better, do a food sensitivity test with a practitioner, or try an elimination diet, to find out the specific foods that cause an immune reaction for you. Repair the gut lining with nutrients specific to repairing and developing tissue, like l-glutamine, collagen, and gelatin. Drinking bone broth is a great way to support your gut healing.
4. Bacterial imbalance
In a perfect world, we would all have an abundance of different beneficial bacterial strains making a home in our gut and providing us with a balanced, healthy system. However, for most of us, this is not the case.
Very commonly, our "gut army" is out of balance with a larger number of bad bacteria crowding out the good guys, known as dysbiosis. This battle is something that should be confined to the large intestine, but at times it can back up into the small intestine, a place that should be relatively free of bacteria. This is known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and is a difficult situation to eradicate. SIBO can come with symptoms such as intense bloating, pain, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. It requires a very specific treatment protocol that should be monitored by a professional.
What to do: Supply your gut with more of the beneficial bacteria by eating raw fermented foods like sauerkraut, whole milk kefir, and kombucha. Add a good probiotic to your daily routine. And if you suspect you might have SIBO, get tested to confirm your diagnosis.
5. Unwanted invaders
When the digestive function is compromised, it makes a great place for unwanted invaders to set up shop. The growth of parasites and fungus, such as candida, will take over your digestive system and cause a host of unwanted symptoms, including bloating. If it feels like you are doing everything to heal your gut and you're not getting symptom relief, a parasite, fungal, or bacterial infection could be to blame.
What to do: Visit a qualified functional medicine practitioner to determine the underlying issue of your symptoms and develop a personalized protocol to get these invaders out of your digestive system. With such a large amount of possible causes at the root of bloating, finding the root cause can require a lot of trial and error. A comprehensive stool test will also help you start addressing the issue and find symptom relief.