An enormous percentage of the population experiences uncomfortable flatulence, gas and bloating on a weekly and sometimes even a daily basis. We think this is “normal”, but in fact it is not and often gas and bloating are symptoms of something else afoot in either the diet, the gastrointestinal system, or both.
When considering gas and bloating, we can think of three main things and work from there: one, the foods we eat. Two, the system we put the foods into and three, the interplay between the foods we eat and the system we put them into.
First, let’s talk about food. Some foods are inherently hard to digest, some foods aren’t actually even recognized by the human gastrointestinal tract, and some foods can be irritating and thus cause gas and bloating if taken in excess. Here are some of the worst foods for digestive health.
Foods that are hard to digest are things like gluten – which is found in the grains wheat, barley and rye, and all of their products – casein, which is the protein that is found in milk and milk products. Of course, if you are like most people, you may have spent the last week or so eating gluten and dairy products like a champ.
Interestingly, fiber can be hard to digest too. For people that don’t typically eat a high veggie, high fiber diet, once fiber goes on board in a big way it can really contribute to gas and bloating. Best to go slow there. Beans, in particular, contain certain fibers and carbohydrates that can be hard to break down.
Some individuals, genetically speaking, don’t do well digesting foods that are rich in sulfur-containing compounds. The cruciferous family of veggies, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and bok choi all can be rough to digest for some individuals.
Then, we have foods that aren’t recognized by the human gastrointestinal system. As such, they remain whole and intact and do not get broken down. These large unbroken particles create gas and bloating when they hit the small intestine.
Heading up this list is soy. Soy has oligosacchardies in it that are not recognized by the GI tract of humans. Additionally, soy contains protease inhibitors, essentially blunting protein digestion with consumption.
Sugar alternatives like Splenda, sucralose, acesulfame, and some of the sugar alcohols like maltitol are very hard for the GI system to break down and thus can contribute to gas and bloating. Have you ever read the label on a bag of sugar free candy? Warning: excessive consumption can have a laxative effect. Oops. That’s after you’ve basically blown up like a balloon.
A very common reason for gas and bloating is our bodies themselves – our sub-par gastrointestinal system.
Most commonly, there is simply a lack of digestive capacity. Enzyme production is low, acid production is sluggish, bile production is inadequate. These diminished digestive factors translate into food not being broken down adequately. These large, unbroken molecules that have not been properly broken down to their teeny constituent parts then hit the small intestine and create gas and bloating there. If you also have acid reflux, and/or take antacids or acid blocking drugs, you quite likely have reduced digestive capacity.
The job of the stomach is to break down foods into their requisite parts and send them to the small intestine. The small intestine likes everything broken down into very small particles. When large, unbroken particles hit the small intestine, its not too happy. This is a classic cause of gas and bloating.
Another, oft-overlooked reason for gas and bloating is the fact that hardly anyone chews their food well. Mechanical breakdown of food begins in the mouth with the teeth and certain enzymes that are present in the saliva. If you are wolfing down your food, talking a lot while eating, walking all around while eating, you are taking in a large quantity of air while you are eating. Not to mention the fact that you aren’t giving your body adequate time to fire up its digestive processes if you are running around while you are eating.
Sometimes, there is an imbalance of bacteria in the system. This could be dysbiosis, which is an overgrowth of harmful or pathogenic bacteria in relationship to the good, beneficial bacteria that live in us. There could also be an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine, called small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). The small intestine should be sterile, no bacteria belong there. So, when bacteria are in the small intestine where they don’t belong, we call that SIBO. When there is an imbalance of good guys and bad guys in the large intestine (where the bacteria should be living), we call that dysbiosis.
If there are bacteria where they shouldn’t be, or if you have strains of bacteria that live in you that are not beneficial, these little critters can contribute to gas and bloating.
Food + The System
As certain types of foods come into the system – namely carbohydrates, fibers and proteins – and they interact with a dysfunctional system, gas and bloating ensue. Bacterial imbalance and SIBO mean that bacteria in there fermenting and metabolizing foods and food products where they should not be. Guess what a major by-product is? Gas, yup.
People that have leaky gut are also far more probe to gas and bloating, bloating in particular. The dysfunctional immune response drives accelerated inflammatory molecule production, which in turn drives fluid retention. If you are a person who can zip up their pants in the morning, but can’t wait to get them off at night because you have been slowly swelling up all day, I would strongly suspect leaky gut. For more info on leaky gut, click here.
Related to leaky gut is the issue of food sensitivities. If you are consuming a food that you are sensitive to, you are setting the stage for a ramped-up immune response and then the subsequent inflammatory response, including water and fluid retention, contributing to that bloated feeling.
As in real estate, location and timing of symptoms are very important and can give us clues as to exactly what is going on.
If bloating is happening in the stomach, above the belly button, close to meal times, accompanied by belching, we can think about inadequate chewing and lack of digestive capacity – lowered enzyme output, low acid, potentially issues with bile production.
If symptoms are around the small intestine – located in the mid belly, around the belly button, then we consider things like SIBO, leaky gut and food allergies.
Symptoms centered around the large intestine, located in the low abdomen, accompanied by cramping and lower gas, consider dysbiosis and food sensitivities.
If symptoms occur most strongly around meal times, this points to lack of digestive capacity or digestive fire. Symptoms that are strongest 1-2 hours post meal makes me think also of lack of digestive capacity, but also SIBO.
Symptoms that are present all day or slowly progress all day hark food allergies and leaky gut. Additionally, there may be problems upstream in terms of digestive fire.
What to do
This is a list of 8 simple steps that you can take today to reduce gas and bloating:
- Chew your food until it is semi-solid
- Sit and slow down while you eat
- Take stock of foods that you consume frequently because they may be inherently hard to digest or you could be sensitive to them
- Increase your consumption of bitter and sour foods to increase digestive capacity. Foods like bitter greens, lemon, apple cider vinegar, radishes, etc all increase enzyme production and can promote optimal acid and bile production as well
- Consider taking plant enzymes with meals. Look for a formula that has lipase, peptidase and amylase in it as a minimum
- If you decide to increase your fiber intake, whether through the diet or through supplementation, it should be done slowly and incrementally
- Watch out for foods that are high in fructose, like refined carbohydrates, flour and sugar. Watch out for fake sugars
- If you have other gastrointestinal related symptoms, consider a gut restoration program
Gas and bloating does not have to be a part of your daily experience.