Bloating – that uncomfortable, swelled up sensation in your abdominal area. Many of us, if not all of us, are familiar with this feeling. After going back for seconds or thirds of that delicious holiday dinner, or indulging in one too many slices of cake, we usually know what’s coming… a full, swelled, distended abdominal region – bloating!

For some people, however, bloating is more than just an occasional, temporary discomfort from over-eating. They may be suffering from IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or other gut-related issues and are dealing with abdominal pain on a daily basis. No matter what your situation, there are steps you can take to help you deal with the discomfort and eliminate belly bloating.

In this article I will talk about: (click to read)

  1. Bloating – what is it?
  2. What causes bloating
  3. How to get rid of bloating and prevent it in the future

What is Bloating?

We’ve already covered a brief description of bloating – but what exactly is happening inside our bodies that causes that feeling of fullness and swelling? To understand the answer to this question, we first have to look at what normally goes on in our intestines.

The intestines are filled with life! Literally. There are millions of bacterial organisms, called microflora or microbiota, that reside in the gut, particularly the large intestine (a.k.a. the colon). And these microflora play a vital role in our health. They’re crucial to proper immune function (more on this in a future post) and mucosal barrier function; they help with the proper metabolism of foods and drugs, and they are even involved in the production of fatty acids and vitamins.

So how are these microscopic creatures involved with the production of gas? Simply put, they break down food particles that haven’t been completely digested in the small intestine and release gas in the process. The five main gases found within the gastrointestinal (GI) tract are 1: nitrogen (N2), oxygen (O2), hydrogen (H2), carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4). But intestinal microflora aren’t the only ones to blame for these gases. Some of the gases, such as nitrogen and oxygen, come from swallowed air, while others, such as carbon dioxide, appear in the gut from carbonated beverages. In addition, CO2 is produced as a by-product of chemical reactions from the breakdown of food in the small intestine.

Before continuing on, it’s important to note that the production and release of gas is a normal bodily function! One study showed that healthy individuals produce an average of 700 cc (cubic centimeters) of gas daily 2.

So how are gas and bloating connected to one another?

So far…

We’ve learned that the large intestine is filled with millions of microorganisms. These microbiota carry vital responsibilities, one of which includes breaking down food particles that have not yet been completely digested. Gas is produced in the GI tract as a by-product of this process.

What Causes Bloating?

Abnormal Gut Microflora

While a number of studies have disproved that bloating is caused by excessive intestinal gas5, 6, 7, there is plenty of evidence that alterations in the microflora population results in increased bloating symptoms.

There are over 500 different species of GI microbiota in the adult1. It has been shown that different patterns of colonization in the gut (i.e., a different proportion of species) can alter protein and carbohydrate metabolism8, affecting bloating and flatulence. In essence, a disruption in the balance of bacterial colonies in the gut may lead to differences in the types of gas produced, which may play a role in producing symptoms of bloating9,10,11.

For example, people who reported significant bloating and cramping after eating foods containing sorbitol and fiber were found to be low producers of methane (i.e., less colonies of methane-forming bacteria, also called methanogenic flora)12. In contrast, another study13 showed that people who are high producers of methane gas have a lower prevalence of lactulose intolerance.

Slow Food Transit Time

The food that we eat passes through various stages of digestion (i.e., mouth, stomach, small intestine). Each stage of digestion is important for the complete breakdown of food in order to absorb the maximum amount of nutrients; however once the nutrients are absorbed, the remainder must be eliminated. This elimination must occur fairly quickly; otherwise the microflora of the colon will have a chance to feed on the waste, creating by-products that cause the symptoms of bloating20.

Additionally, too much fibre can decrease the motility of the contents in the intestines14. Don’t get me wrong, consuming fibre is extremely important for proper digestion and the passage of food through the intestines. But when there is an overload of fibre and not enough hydration, a “bulking effect” occurs in the colon, which leads to hard stools, constipation, and slower transit of waste products15.

Food Intolerance

The third common cause of bloating is the inability to properly digest certain foods – a.k.a. food intolerance. As we saw with the previous two points, microflora can play a big role in the symptoms of bloating. And you may have guessed already that the gut bacteria play a role here as well. In fact, it’s pretty much identical to what I mentioned earlier in terms of feeding on the food that’s passing through the gut. Except that instead of the bacteria getting a chance to do so because the food is sitting in the gut for a long time, the microbiota are breaking down food molecules that weren’t properly digested further up the digestive route.

This commonly occurs with highly fermentable carbohydrates that weren’t properly broken down and absorbed. When these molecules reach the colon, bacterial enzymes will break down the carbs into short chain carbonic acids and gases, leading to the symptoms of bloating16, 17.

If you’re wondering what “highly fermentable carbs” are, they are a group of carbohydrates called monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polyols. Those words are a mouthful, but in chemistry terms they simply describe the length of the sugar chain (saccharide): mono = 1, di = 2, oligo = 3-9. No matter the length, all sugars are made from monosaccharides as the basic unit. Polyols are slightly different from saccharides in that they are sugar alcohols and therefore contain ‘OH’ molecules.

The reason why this group of carbs are considered “highly fermentable” is because they are easily broken down (due to their short chain lengths) and readily undergo the process of fermentation. Fermentation is a metabolic process that occurs in yeast and bacteria, which converts sugars to acids, gases, and/or alcohol.

So to tie this back to bloating, when simple sugars (i.e., easily fermentable) do not get broken down via the digestive process and reach colonic bacteria, these guys take over and readily start the process of fermentation. When this occurs in large amounts, or if an individual is highly sensitive to this process, bloating and distention of the abdomen is the result.

Poor Digestion

As we already discussed, gut microbiota will take advantage when poorly digested food passes through the intestines. This, of course, can result in belly bloating. But what causes poor digestion in the first place? The basic answer to this question is not enough stomach acid (hydrochloric acid = HCl) and/or not enough digestive enzymes being produced. These two factors are absolutely necessary for the breakdown of large food molecules into their basic components that can be used by the body. There are certain foods that help promote the digestive process, and are discussed further below.

Other considerations relating to HCl and digestive enzyme production are the amount of food consumed at each meal and the speed at which it’s eaten. If the stomach is being overloaded with food (like that extra serving at dinner), it simply can’t produce enough acid to break down all of the food. Similarly, if food is eaten too quickly, the stomach can’t keep up with the production of acid, thus digestion suffers.

After going through these main points on the causes of bloating, I want to reiterate the fact that not all gut bacteria is bad. Some are essential to our well-being. It is a disruption of this healthy balance in the gut that wreaks havoc and causes bloating and gassiness. Luckily, there are many ways you can support the “good guys” and make sure the “bad guys” are under control.

How to Get Rid of Bloating: Foods and Other Tips

Here are a few tips to help you relieve the symptoms of bloating:

1. Add bitter herbs to your diet

Many cultures around the world recognize the health benefits of regularly eating bitter foods. The bitter taste triggers the release of gastrin, a hormone that plays a major role in digestion18. Gastrin stimulates the salivary glands, increases the stomach’s secretion of hydrochloric acid19 as well as pepsin, an enzyme necessary for digesting protein. It also increases the production of bile19, which is needed for the breakdown of fat and the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients20.

Arugula leaves

Some common bitters include chamomile, dandelion, arugula, yarrow, and peppermint. You can steep these herbs in hot water, or in the case of dandelion and arugula, add them to a salad. If you frequently experience belly bloating after eating meals, consuming these herbs before a meal will kickstart the digestive process, aiding in the breakdown of food and preventing the occurrence of bloating due to poorly digested food.

If you are currently experiencing bloating, I recommend drinking a cup of chamomile or peppermint tea to soothe the symptoms.

 

2. Consume diuretic foods

watermelon

Diuretics are substances that promote the production of urine, thereby releasing unneeded salt and water from the body. Since water helps flush everything through the intestinal system, it can be a great relief to the symptoms of bloating. Of course there are a number of synthetic substances that can help bring about this effect in the body. But I generally avoid synthetic pills and don’t recommend them to anyone. Why go there when there are a huge variety of delicious, wholesome foods that provide the same effect? On top of that, these foods are loaded with essential nutrients that will nourish the body.

Some common diuretic foods are: cucumber, watermelon, cranberries, ginger, celery, lemon, parsley, asparagus, and watercress.

Add these to your meals, eat them as a snack, or sneak some in to a delicious smoothie [link to smoothie recipe].

 

3. Eat fermented foods + other probiotics

Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics. And as we already learned, having the right colonies (and proportion) of bacteria inhabiting the gut is essential to digestive health and preventing belly bloat. I encourage you to incorporate fermented foods and other sources of probiotics at least 3-4 times a week, if not more!

Kefir

Probiotics helps feed the good bacteria in the gut and promotes their growth – overpowering the bad guys that are often the ones to blame for the production of gas and bloat.

Some great sources of probiotics are: sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, kombucha, and kimchi.

 
 

4. Take plant-based digestive enzyme supplements before meals.

If symptoms of bloating are due to the poor breakdown of food, this is likely because the body is having trouble producing a sufficient amount of digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid on its own. Supplementing with digestive enzymes will compensate for this, and will greatly improve the digestive process. As a result, not only will you be able to extract more nutrients from food, but it will also prevent large, unbroken food particles from continuing through the digestive tract where they can potentially interact with gut bacteria. And as we just learned, undigested food + gut bacteria = bloating and gas.

I recommend choosing plant-based digestive enzymes for two main reasons:

1) They have a broad spectrum of pH activity and therefore can survive through the acidic environment in the stomach. This means that they can actually do their job in both the stomach and small intestine, and help with the breakdown of food.

In contrast, animal-based enzymes work only within a specific pH range, and are only active in the small intestine. This limits the types of food they can break down, making these enzymes only half as effective!

2) Avoiding the chances of taking a supplement derived from an animal that has been exposed to antibiotics, hormones, GMO feed, etc. Unless you do some thorough research and find a reputable company that guarantees the health of its animal sources, you cannot rule out this possibility.

 

5. Eat potassium-rich foods

Bananas

If the cause of belly bloating stems from water retention, then eating potassium-rich foods can help relieve the symptoms. When the diet is high in salty foods and beverages, the body reacts by increasing fluid retention. Potassium helps balance the retention and circulation of fluids in the body by counteracting the effects of sodium. Some great sources of potassium includes avocado, banana, apricots, and mushrooms.

 

6. Avoid or limit simple sugars and dairy, a source of highly-fermentable carbs

It makes sense that if you’re sensitive to improper digestion of highly-fermentable carbohydrates, that you should try to avoid them as much as possible. This would include eliminating all sources of added sugar and high-fructose fruits. Instead, you can eat fruits that are low in fructose content such as grapefruit, berries, bananas, melon, and oranges.

 

7. Eliminate allergens or food sensitivities

Not all food sensitivities or allergies manifest themselves in blatantly obvious reactions. For this reason, doing an elimination diet for at least two weeks can help pinpoint food allergens that may be affecting your well-being on a subtle level. Start by eliminating the most common food allergens for 7-10 days. This includes gluten, eggs, dairy, citrus fruits, nuts, shellfish, caffeine, and alcohol. If your body is allergic to one (or more) of these foods, you will most likely feel relief of symptoms such as fatigue, joint pain, indigestion and/or bloating by the end of the 10 days.

Next, you can re-introduce these foods back into your diet one at a time. Keep in mind that you should allow at least 48 hours in between each new food that you’re re-introducing so that you can identify exactly which food is causing negative symptoms.

 

8. Controlling your meal portions

In order to properly digest food, there has to be enough hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes produced by the body. When the system is overloaded with food, it will have a tough time properly digesting everything. Of course, as we discussed above, this can lead to indigestion and bloating. To prevent this from happening, stop eating once you feel about 80% full. This is because satiation signals, which travel from the stomach to the brain, are slightly delayed. It’s better to eat slightly less during your main meals and have a small snack later on if you feel hungry, instead of eating too much all at one time.

 

9. Keep yourself hydrated

Drinking enough water and keeping yourself hydrated is important for many bodily functions. When it comes to relief from bloating, water helps restore sodium balance and reduce water retention. Also, it helps flush everything through the intestinal system and ensures regular bowel movements. Drink water according to your thirst signals, and drink extra after exercise and during hot and humid weather conditions.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, there are plenty of healthy ways to get rid of bloating. It’s important to first determine what is causing you to feel bloated, as this will help in choosing the steps you need to take to find relief.

Do you have any other good tips to share that have helped you relieve bloating? Share in the comments below!

 

References

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[2] Tomlin, J., Lowis, C., & Read, N. W. (1991). Investigation of normal flatus production in healthy volunteers. Gut, 32(6), 665–669.

[3] Passos, M. C., Serra, J., Azpiroz, F., Tremolaterra, F., & Malagelada, J.-R. (2005). Impaired reflex control of intestinal gas transit in patients with abdominal bloating. Gut, 54(3), 344–348. doi:10.1136/gut.2003.038158

[4] Seo AY, Kim N, Oh DH. (2013). Abdominal Bloating: Pathophysiology and Treatment. J Neurogastroenterol Motil, 19:433-453. http://dx.doi.org/10.5056/jnm.2013.19.4.433

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[12] Kajs TM, Fitzgerald JA, Buckner RY, et al. (1997) Influence of a methanogenic flora on the breath H2 and symptom response to ingestion of sorbitol or oat fiber. Am J Gastroenterol. 92:89-94.

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[18] Yarnell, Eric. Phytochemistry and Pharmacy for Practitioners of Botanical Medicine. Wenatchee, WA: Healing Mountain Publishing, Inc. 2003

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[20] Matsen, Jonn. Eating Alive: Prevention Thru Good Digestion. Gordon Soules Book Publishers Ltd. 1991