The most common causes of bloating
Stomach bloating is a common condition that affects as many as 1 in 5 people. While it’s most commonly associated with women, men can be just as prone.
Bloating can be very unpleasant, with the stomach swelling up like a balloon and making it difficult to wear tight-fitting clothes or uncomfortable to carry out normal daily activities. Excessive wind may also be present, adding to the sense of embarrassment.
But what causes bloating? If there’s no other bowel disturbance (like diarrhoea or constipation), underlying disease is unlikely – although, if in doubt, always visit your GP.
Bloating is most often caused by gas in the bowel, the volume and odour of which can depend on a number of factors, including:
how much air you swallow
and the mix of bacteria in your gut.
Below are listed some of the most common causes of bloating, many of which are connected or inter-dependent.
Did you know?
We produce up to four pints of gas a day and release it by either burping or passing wind (14 times per day on average).
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Previously known as “mucous colitis” and “spastic colitis”, IBS involves the colon being in spasm. The two main symptoms are abdominal pain / bloating and altered bowel habits. The pain is usually relieved on passing stool or wind. Diarrhoea with watery stools on waking in the morning may alternate with constipation.
It is often accompanied with the sensation that the bowel is incompletely emptied and excessive flatulence. IBS is often linked to emotional factors (such as stress) rather than allergies / intolerances (although it is thought that cow’s milk and antigens in beef can precipitate the condition), with around one-third of cases being linked to diet. Women are more susceptible than men.
Bloating is one of the symptoms of an inflamed bowel, which can be caused by a wide variety of conditions and diseases, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, as well as severe food sensitivity (as is seen with coeliac disease for example – an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten intake).
All too often, people eat their food too quickly because they are stressed, in a hurry or on the go etc. This is a bad start. Hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes are secreted in the stomach in order to digest protein. Stress inhibits all enzyme secretion and the levels of hydrochloric acid in the stomach decline as we get older.
As a result, many people routinely take antacids and other stomach acid blockers. These people are unlikely to be digesting protein properly and may therefore experience abdominal bloating, reflux and burping.
In the small intestine, bile from the liver, pancreatic juices and enzymes secreted by the intestinal lining act to digest food. Once again, stress, poor diet and nutritional deficiencies can all impair enzyme production which can in turn cause bloating of the stomach, wind and cramps.
Constipation can have a number of underlying causes, but if food is only partially digested (e.g. because there has been a lack of digestive enzymes) and that food reaches the colon, it can putrefy and ferment. The problem is compounded if there is a lack of fibre and water in the diet.
The longer food sits in the bowel, the longer toxins inside your intestines are in contact with the intestinal wall and gas-forming bacteria have to work, meaning more gas can be formed.
Food allergy / intolerance
Any food that we are allergic or intolerant to acts like a poison in our bodies. In the majority of cases (+-95%), food allergies develop over time, so that a food that you once tolerated well might now be making you ill.
If our digestion is poor, there is an imbalance of gut flora (dysbiosis) or we have nutritional deficiencies, we may develop what is known as “leaky gut syndrome”. The intestinal lining can become more permeable than it should be, allowing toxins and partially digested food molecules to enter the bloodstream.
This challenges the immune system and, over time, may contribute to food intolerances and/or allergies that can produce wide-ranging symptoms (including bloating, fluid retention, IBS, weight gain, cravings and fatigue).
Eating foods that you are allergic / intolerant to can create a lot of inflammation in the body, weakening your immune system. If you continue to eat these foods, your body will try to dilute them to minimise their harmful effects – this congests your lymphatic system, which can leave you looking bloated and puffy.
It’s estimated that there are more than 500 different species of bacteria present in the human gut in concentrations of between 100 billion to 1 trillion microbes per gram. This amounts to around 95% of the total number of cells in the human body.
The friendly bacteria in the stomach and intestines can quite easily become unbalanced (dysbiosis), making the body more vulnerable to yeast overgrowth (Candida), fungi, parasites and harmful bacteria. Poorly digested food, a high sugar diet and medication (like antibiotics) can all alter the intestinal pH, destroy good bacteria and then lead to bloating.
Beat the bloat with a healthy diet
A diet packed with fresh, enzyme-rich raw foods, fruit and vegetables, quality dietary fibre and fermented foods; low in saturated fats, salt and sugar; and with plenty of pure water, coupled with an active lifestyle, is the best way to keep your digestive system healthy and therefore beat the bloat.
You can also help to ensure healthy bowel function by:
eating slowly and chewing well (to avoid fermentation, gas formation and bloating)
eating only when calm and relaxed (to encourage the secretion of digestive enzymes).
When increasing the level of fibre in your diet, be sure to opt for naturally occurring fibre that is part of a whole food (e.g. in grains, fruit and vegetables etc). Try to avoid extracted bran, which is can have an irritant action on delicate membranes in the gut, leaving them open to inflammation (which will only aggravate bloating).
Also be sure to increase your water intake accordingly, otherwise any constipation could be worsened.