What Your Bloating Can Tell You About Your Gut Health + 6 Ways To Find Relief
Too often in our fast-paced culture, we are tempted to grab the pain relievers for our headaches, the heating pad for our period cramps, or the caffeine for our zapped energy, without ever stepping back and asking the million-dollar question: What is my body trying to tell me?
Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract doesn't have words to tell you that it is overtaxed, unbalanced, or inflamed, so it sends you symptoms like bloating, belching, and gas instead. When you can read these symptoms as signals, you gain the opportunity to truly nourish and support your unique body without judgment.
What your bloating is trying to tell you.
As a holistic health coach, I often work with clients who see bloating as a sign of failure, as if it makes them "broken."
One client, let's call her Clara, used to stress over her bloating every single day after lunch. When we zoomed out, we could see that she was eating her lunch in just three to four minutes while answering emails; she was routinely eating foods that her body wasn't responding well to; and her gut was pretty inflamed.
Clara didn't need to uproot her life and eat "perfectly" to banish her bloat, she simply needed to listen to her body and compassionately give it what it was asking for: rest, balance, and nutrition.
If you, too, are struggling with bloating, it's time to look at the 800-pound gorilla in the room: your gut microbiome.
Your gut microbiome is the collection of microbes, bacteria, and fungi hanging out in your GI tract. These billions of strains of bacteria are responsible for absorbing nutrients from your food and breaking it down. Contrary to what your mother may have told you, you are not what you eat; you are what your gut microbiome can absorb.
Contrary to what your mother may have told you, you are not what you eat; you are what your gut microbiome can absorb.
It's estimated that only 9% of your gut microbiome1 is influenced by your genetics, and the other 91% rests in your hands, constantly adapting to your lifestyle and what's on your plate. Research shows that stress, environmental toxins, antibiotics, inflammation, and highly processed foods can reshape the bacteria in your gut2 and decrease your microbial variety, leading to chronic bloat3, increased inflammation4, and compromised immunity5.
Increase fiber and prebiotics.
Consuming plenty of fiber is one of the best ways to increase the good bacteria in your gut. Certain fiber-rich foods like bananas, apples, artichokes, garlic, onions, white peaches, chickpeas, watermelon, and leeks are packed with prebiotic fiber, known to feed the good bacteria in your gut. Increasing fiber from fruits, vegetables, starches, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds is associated with an increase in good gut bacteria, can regulate blood sugar levels, and even can reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular, infectious, and respiratory diseases7. Pretty compelling right?
But there is a catch: Some people eat all of the healthy, fiber-rich food and still struggle with nagging bloat after their kale, cabbage, and black bean salad. We call this the fiber pendulum. Too little fiber (usually under 25 grams) is associated with low energy, constipation, high cholesterol, and bloat, but loading up on too much fiber (or too much fiber too fast!) can lead to gas, bloating, and constipation.
Raw vegetables, though incredible sources of vitamins and minerals, can be difficult to digest in large amounts. (Specifically looking at you, cruciferous vegetable family.) If you notice that raw foods are contributing to your bloat, try shifting a few meals over from raw to cooked, steamed, puréed, or boiled veggies, and see if it leads to easier digestion.
Probiotic supplements and foods high in probiotics like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, sourdough bread, and fermented veggies can be helpful to rebalance the bacteria in your gut. Increasing food sources of probiotics is known to decrease and even eradicate bloating but is also linked to stronger immune function, decreased cholesterol levels, improvements in allergies, lower rates of depression, and healthier skin. (If you're looking for a probiotic and don't know where to start, check out our guide.)
Chew your food more.
The easiest way you can ease your bloating today is by changing not what you are eating but how you are eating. When you chew your food, your mouth creates digestive enzymes called salivary amylase that help you break down your food and absorb nutrients8 from it. Your stomach doesn't have teeth, so when we don't chew our food well enough, your stomach has to use more acid and more energy to properly break it down, causing you to feel sluggish and bloated.
Ayurvedic wisdom teaches the mindfulness practice of chewing your food 30 times before swallowing. For reference, the average American chews each bite four to seven times! If this feels like a stretch for you, simply chewing your food from solid to liquid can do the trick.
Slow down meals.
Your digestion and nervous system are endlessly connected. Your gut is home to around 90% of your body's serotonin and 70% of your immune system5, highlighting why your gut-brain connection is so complex and incredible.
I've found that when clients are struggling with unresolved chronic stress, it will usually manifest as GI discomfort, impaired digestion, cramping, and bloating. If your body is primed to fight or flight, digestion becomes a nonpriority.
To combat this, you can start by practicing deep, diaphragmatic breathing before eating, which can shift your body into a parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) state.
It takes about 20 to 30 minutes for the hormones in your stomach to signal to your brain that you are full. If the pace of your day requires your lunch to take five minutes, it is likely that you will feel overfull or bloated no matter what you ate. Challenge the pace of your meals by decreasing distractions, slowing down, chewing enough, and listening to your body's hunger and fullness signals.
Utilize herbs to sip your bloat away.
Herbs like ginger, peppermint, fennel, anise, turmeric, curcumin, and cardamom have been used since antiquity to support digestion and decrease stomach pain and bloating9. 10
Studies on peppermint show 10a 50 to 70% decrease in abdominal pain and digestive discomfort when subjects consumed peppermint oil or tea daily. Ginger is known to decrease inflammation and stimulate the digestive tract11 while easing nausea and bloating. Turmeric, nature's most potent spice for promoting healthy inflammatory actions, can decrease pain and bloating12 and even improve mental health markers like depression and anxiety13.
If you are routinely eating highly processed foods that cause inflammation, bloat may feel pretty inevitable. High amounts of fast food, fried foods, alcohol, refined sugar, and packaged snack foods can contribute to bloat by forcing your gut into overdrive. For some, identifying individual food sensitivities like gluten, dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, etc., may be necessary for a short time.
Remember: Bloating is not a blemish. It provides helpful feedback from our bodies and tells us that something is unbalanced with the bacteria in our gut, the food on our plate, or the state of our nervous system. If you struggle with bloat, instead of focusing on cutting out foods, prioritize adding nourishing foods like pre- and probiotics, fiber-rich foods, bone broths, and healing habits like mindful eating, deep breathing, and chewing your food from solid to liquid. Nourishment heals better than restriction.
Lindsay is a Certified Functional Nutrition Counselor, Holistic Health Coach, Exercise Physiologist, and Owner of Keep Your Plants On, where she has helped hundreds of women struggling with hormonal imbalance restore their energy, revamp metabolic health, balance their hormones, banish bloat, and promote digestive healing.
Lindsay graduated from Liberty University, Precision Nutrition, the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and the Functional Nutrition Alliance. Lindsay believes that health is more than just the food we eat. It is the way we live, move, stress, commune with others, and engage with the great outdoors.