Everyone knows the heavy, uncomfortable feeling of being bloated. In fact, it has become so common that many people consider it a regular everyday occurrence and just part of their normal digestion process. However, the truth is that bloating, gassiness, and abdominal discomfort, are not “normal” whatsoever, rather they are a sign of digestive distress. While reasons for digestive upset can vary from person to person based on diet, lifestyle, stress, or environmental factors, and although it can seem difficult to identify the culprit, it is possible, you just need to know what to look for. So here are six of the most common causes of bloating and what to do about them.
Common Causes of Bloating
1. Not Chewing Enough
The digestive process operates like a chain reaction, working from the top down. Taking the time to chew your food and eat slowly is the first vital step in supporting good digestion and reducing digestive issues further in the process. Although most people think digestion occurs in the stomach, very little digestion occurs in the stomach, as digestion actually begins in the mouth. The action of chewing helps to pre-digest food by mechanically breaking it down, and by chemically breaking it down with the help of an enzyme found in your saliva called salivary amylase. The action of chewing helps to signal to the rest of the body and triggers your stomach to begin producing stomach acid to further break down your food and continue the digestive process. If you don’t fully chew your food, or you eat too quickly, you are essentially putting a big wet log on your digestive fire; you are going to put it out.
Solution: Take the time to fully chew your food when you eat. When you eat, sit down, slow down, and put down your fork between bites. The more mindful you can be when you eat, the more it will support digestion and reduce potential bloating.
2. Low Stomach Acid
Low stomach acid, also known as hypochlorhydria, is a commonly overlooked problem that can lead to digestive issues such as bloating, gas, acid reflux, and heartburn. Although many people assume that these issues are caused by excess acid in the digestive tract, they are actually caused by not enough. Stomach acid is essential for helping us produce the enzymes that break down our food, and low levels of stomach acid can lead to inadequate digestion of proteins, nutrient malabsorption, imbalanced gut flora, and potentially the overgrowth of harmful bacteria, yeast, or parasites in the stomach and small intestine. The production of stomach acid levels will naturally decline as people age, however, they can also be suppressed by a poor diet, consumption of additives and preservatives, stress, smoking, and many other poor lifestyle factors.
Solution: If you suspect you have low stomach acid, consider supporting it by drinking a natural digestive aid such as lemon juice or apple cider vinegar before meals, this will help to stimulate stomach acid and help you break down your food. Alternatively, you can use various supplements to support your digestive fire such as digestive enzymes, digestive bitters, or betaine HCL.
3. Unbalanced Gut Flora
The health of our digestive system is deeply influenced by the bacteria that call our body home. Your microbiome, or our gut flora, is a beneficial colony of one hundred trillion bacterial cells residing in your large intestine which directly impacts our health. However, when the number of beneficial bacteria is outweighed by unfavorable bacteria, be it from low stomach acid, poor diet, or a combination of both, dysbiosis of the microbiome occurs. Unbalanced gut flora is one of the major common causes of bloating, gas, constipation, and inflammation of the digestive tract. One of the easiest and quickest ways to boost the beneficial bacteria in your gut, is to eat probiotic-rich food, most often made via fermentation. Fermentation not only helps to increase beneficial bacteria but can help to remove anti-nutrients, ensuring that food is more easily digested.
Solution: Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled vegetables, tempeh, miso, kombucha, and cultured dairy all contain probiotic bacteria that can help to reduce bloating. Additionally, you can also use probiotic supplements to help rebalance your microbiome.
4. Food Intolerances
Although probiotic-rich foods contain beneficial bacteria that can help to alleviate bloating, it is important to understand that not all foods affect people the same way. Although cultured dairy might be rich in beneficial bacteria, if you do not tolerate dairy well, it will only lead to more bloating and digestive distress. Food intolerances are one of the most common causes of bloating, and one that can easily be avoided if you know what foods negatively affect your digestion. Not every body is created equal and therefore not everyone will react the same way to the same foods. Paying attention to your body’s reactions to foods is the single best way to identify food intolerances. After you eat are you bloated? Gassy? Uncomfortable? The more you can pay attention to how your body reacts to certain foods the easier it will be to identify the foods that are causing your bloating. There are dozens of different foods people can be sensitive to, however, some of the most common include dairy, gluten, eggs, peanuts, soy, and shellfish.
Solution: If you suspect that you might be sensitive to a certain food the easiest thing to do is to remove it entirely from your diet until you see improvement and reintroduce it to see how your body reacts. You can begin by simply testing foods out at home, or use an elimination diet protocol, however, if you are still not seeing an improvement you can speak to a healthcare practitioner to help identify food intolerances through testing.
5. Artificial Sweeteners
Although artificial sweeteners might seem like a safe bet for someone trying to be diet conscious, they are a very common cause of bloating and digestive upset. Because artificial sweeteners are just that, artificial, many of them are not broken down by the digestive tract. Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, and sugar alcohols such as xylitol, sorbitol, and mannitol are passed whole into the small intestine which easily ferments in the gut. These types of sweeteners are commonly found in “health” foods such as protein bars, protein shakes, and chewing gums, so it is essential to read labels.
Solution: In order to reduce bloating, it is best to avoid these forms of sweeteners altogether, and simply opt for a limited amount of natural sweeteners from time to time when you need to satisfy your sweet tooth.
6. Lack of Movement
Exercise helps to stimulate the peristalsis, the rhythmical, muscular contraction that propels food through the intestinal tract, which aids in stimulating good digestion. Ideally, bowel movements should occur naturally every 18-24 hours and be easily passed. A slow bowel, much like a sedentary lifestyle, can lead to constipation which is one of the leading common causes of bloating. Adequate movement, be it low or high intensity, along with adequate fiber and hydration can help to stimulate the natural digestive process. Additionally, movement can help to reduce stress and anxiety, and given many digestive issues are impacted by our mental state, movement can help to reduce the impact of our lifestyle and mental health on our digestive system.
Solution: Any form of activity, light or intense, will help to stimulate the digestive process. Something as simple as a light walk after a meal can help to reduce bloating and stimulate digestion.
The Bottom Line
As common and annoying as bloating might be, it doesn’t need to be. There are many common causes of bloating, so identifying what is affecting an individual can take time, as causes can work in conjunction with one another. Be patient and be open to trying different interventions to help determine what is affecting you specifically.