If you’re reading this with your jeans undone, or you can’t go to a restaurant unless you’re wearing a ‘buffet dress’ loose enough to accommodate your food baby, you’re not alone. Research by YouGov has found that nearly half (43%) of the UK population gets some kind of digestive discomfort – and for 62% of the women, that includes bloating.
‘Bloating is one of the most common gut symptoms, characterised by a feeling of gassiness or distension (swelling) – and you can also feel bloated without actually looking it,’ explains Kristy Coleman, nutritionist at The Gut Stuff. ‘It can be caused by a number of things, but key culprits include stress and not chewing your food enough.’ The bad news? There’s no cure. The good news? ‘You can manage your symptoms,’ says Kristy. Time to digest some facts…
One thing’s for sure, we want bloating to bugger off. Which is probably why 74% of the women in that YouGov survey said they avoid certain foods if they think they might trigger digestive discomfort. But putting some foods, such as leafy greens, on a pedestal, while giving the red card to others, such as lentils, can also be problematic.
‘Variety is very important for our general wellbeing and gut microbes,’ Kristy explains. ‘Research shows that people who eat more than 30 different plant foods a week have a more diverse mix of gut microbes than those who eat fewer than ten.’
Why the need for this variety? Studies suggest that people with a diverse mix of microbes tend to have a healthier gut, whereas less gut diversity is associated with conditions such as obesity, diabetes and bowel disease. Gut microbes have the power to influence many areas of health, from immunity to appetite and energy metabolism. So, think about adding as many different sources as possible to your diet, including wholegrains, veg, fruit, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and pulses.
Now, let’s talk fibre: 90% of us aren’t getting enough of it. And if you immediately think fibre = farting, have a rethink. ‘Fibre is vital for bulking out and softening your stools by retaining water, which keeps things moving and reduces your risk of constipation,’ says Kristy. Plus, eating plenty of fibre is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer. ‘We should aim for 30g of fibre a day,’ adds Kristy. ‘One apple is about 2.4g – so it can feel like a high number to hit.’ To reach it, Kristy advises starting slowly and building up over the course of a couple of weeks to help your gut acclimatise.
What to eat? The NHS recommends trying higher-fibre breakfast cereals or porridge and wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta and brown rice; adding beans, lentils or chickpeas to stews, curries and salads; including plenty of vegetables with meals and in sauces, stews or curries; having fruit (fresh or canned in natural juice) for dessert; and snacking on fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, oatcakes and unsalted nuts or seeds.
If you do get discomfort and/or excess wind, try cutting down on certain foods, rather than ditching them. The NHS suggests going easy on beans, onions, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. ‘With pulses and legumes, try soaking them overnight – it helps make them easier to digest,’ says Kristy. ‘And swap regular bread for sourdough, which has had a community of microbes working away at it to make it easier to digest.’
Think about how you eat, too. Swallowing air can be a bloating culprit, so chew with your mouth closed and avoid talking while eating and skip the chewing gum. ‘Try to chew each mouthful until it’s semi-liquid before swallowing,’ Kristy advises. ‘Make sure you sit down and eat without distractions, really focusing on the food.’ Reduce your fizzy drink intake, too, as it can cause gas to build up in your tummy.
We’ve all been there: feeling nauseous before a big meeting, getting butterflies when nervous, or describing something distressing as ‘gut-wrenching’. The gut and brain are the ultimate power couple, constantly checking in on each other (the Barack to your Michelle, if you will). And feelings are a big factor: anger, anxiety, sadness and elation can all trigger gut symptoms. No wonder some experts refer to the gut as the ‘second brain’. Kristy explains that this clever interaction is known as the gut-brain axis (GBA). ‘The GBA describes a back-and-forth communication pathway between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract, which uses signalling hormones and other fancy messengers to manage what we do and how we feel on a daily basis.’
So what can we do for a gut-brain happily ever after? ‘Manage everyday stress,’ says Kristy. ‘When you’re stressed, your body responds by producing the hormone cortisol. This can slow down the production of saliva in your mouth, meaning the enzymes available to break down food are reduced, slowing digestion. It can also cause sudden diarrhoea, which might mean you aren’t absorbing nutrients as well.’ She adds that stress can reduce the effectiveness of your immune system – 70% of which is found in your gut – and can cause the stomach and oesophagus to spasm. So that’s why our insides feel like they’re churning when we’re overwhelmed and anxious. To keep a check on things, start a stress diary. ‘Make a note of your pressure points, then work on how you manage that stress,’ Kristy advises.
It might be time to get your yogi on, too. Not only does research suggest that yoga may help with the bloating associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but regular practice can also have stress-relieving benefits. (Quick tip: for relief from trapped gas, give child’s pose and happy baby pose a go.) We also love the MoodMission app: you input how you’re feeling and it gives you a list of five quick, evidence-based missions (such as doing push-ups or writing a letter to someone) to improve your mood. And we rate Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, which explains why women experience burnout differently to men – and how you can end the overwhelm.
You might also want to start counting sheep. ‘About 90% of your serotonin – the precursor to melatonin, your sleep-regulating hormone – is made in your gut,’ explains Kristy. ‘This means regular poor sleep can influence gut health, which, in turn, may increase the frequency of bloating.’ Getting enough shut-eye helps support our immune system and mental health, too – both of which can have an impact on gut health. Who knew? But remember, says Kristy, that ‘quality of sleep is just as important as quantity’. How do you achieve it? ‘To help you get that circadian rhythm working as it should, regularity is key. Stick to a routine and keep regular sleep and awake times.’ Yep, even on weekends. No more late-night Netflix binges, followed by Sunday lie-ins till 2pm…
Put your stimulants on a timer, too (sorry if you rely on your trusty 3pm coffee to get you through the afternoon). ‘Stay away from nicotine and caffeine for the eight hours before sleep,’ advises Kristy. ‘It can take several hours for your body to metabolise caffeine, so keep intake to pre-midday.’
Finally, make sure your bed is a strictly ‘sleep and sex only’ zone. If you’ve taken to WFB (working from bed) since the pandemic or you respond to emails while you’re still tucked up, your mind will then associate your bed with wakefulness instead of a stimulus for sleeping. So, next time you’re tempted by the latest quick-fix fad to beat the bloat? Remember that it could be as simple as taking it back to basics.
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If your bloat doesn’t shift, you get new symptoms or you’re worried, see your GP – persistent bloating and feelings of fullness could relate to underlying conditions that need medical attention.