A quick run-down of your GI (gastrointestinal) system:
You put food in your mouth. Your saliva contains the first round of digestive enzymes, and starts to break down simple carbs into sugar, which are then absorbed directly into your bloodstream. (This is why simple carbs are basically the same thing as sugar.)
The rest of the food slides down your esophagus, your esophageal sphincter opens and the food empties into your stomach. In your stomach is, among other things, HCl (hydrochloric acid), and that’s phase 1 of breaking down proteins.
Once your stomach has done its thing, food gets dumped into your small intestine. You should have a boatload of good bacteria (or probiotics, mostly from the lactobacillus family) in there, and this is also where your gall bladder empties bile to help with fat absorption, and where your pancreas releases digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes break more complex food molecules (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) down into simpler, absorbable molecules, and then these molecules get absorbed into your bloodstream. Probiotics help with this process, and also function as a “good” army, defending your body from invasion from nastier microbes.
Once your small intestine has removed all the useful parts of your food, what’s left over gets dumped into your colon, where you have a different set of good bacteria (mostly from the bifidobacillus family). Your colon absorbs and adds water as needed to bulk up the waste and make it solid. Then, if all goes well, you eliminate.
WHAT CAN GO WRONG
If you don’t have enough HCl in your stomach, you’ll feel like protein will “just sit there” instead of getting broken down appropriately. If this is the case, when your stomach does finally dump its contents into the small intestine, the molecules will be too complex for the enzymes to break down. Then the bacteria in your small intestine will take over — but in the process of breaking down those complex food particles, they’ll produce gaseous byproducts, such as carbon dioxide and methane. So low HCl is cause #1 for bloating. Consider seeking treatment for this if you notice your bloating worsens with protein-rich meals.
If you don’t have sufficient enzyme production in your small intestine, once again, the bacteria in your small intestine will take over and produce gaseous byproducts as they break down your food for you. So lack of digestive enzymes is cause #2 for bloating. This may be due to chronic stress and anxiety (which will redirect blood flow to the muscles, rather than to the digestive system). It also may be due to pancreatic insufficiency.
There are also certain kinds of carbohydrates that are notoriously difficult to digest, and only those with especially robust guts are able to do it well. These include beans and cruciferous veggies. So consumption of tenacious carbohydrates is cause #2.5 for bloating (I call it 2.5 because this still has to do with digestive enzymes).
If you have unfriendly organisms in your gut (dysbiosis), this can lead to not only the gaseous byproducts mentioned above, but also other byproducts that are toxic to the lining of your small intestine and can lead to increased gut permeability, setting you up for myriad food allergies. So dysbiosis is cause #3 for bloating — and one form of dysbiosis is candida overgrowth. Dysbiosis can result from antibiotic overuse, over-the-counter meds such as Advil or Naproxen, chemical toxicity, or poor food choices (which tend to feed the unfriendly organisms.)
If you’re not having regular bowel movements, your intestinal gas may build up behind slower-moving poop, causing bloating. So constipation is cause #4 for bloating.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- (Just about) everyone should be on a probiotic. Look for one that has a 50/50 ratio of bifidobacillus to lactobacillus, 10-20 billion organisms daily. If you are prone to bloating it’s best to choose one that does not include any “prebiotics”, such as FOS or inulin, because when you first start taking them, these can worsen bloating for about 1-2 weeks. I’d only caution those with a weakened immune system to consult your doctor before initiating a high-dose probiotic.
- Slow down. Chew your food slowly. When you’re eating, be all there. Relax! This will help redirect blood flow to your gut, assisting your pancreas in enzyme production and release.
- Steam, sauté, or lightly cook your veggies. If your digestion is just generally weaker, raw veggies may induce bloating. Light heat will help break down these starches, easing the strain on your gut.
- Take a digestive enzyme. If you know you’re going to have to eat and run, take preventative action and carry enzymes with you (but don’t make a habit of it). If you know you have a hard time digesting beans, carry enzymes with you and take them when you know you’re going to be consuming a meal you typically have a harder time digesting.
- Drink plenty of water. One major cause of constipation is low water intake. You should be getting in half your body weight of water in ounces daily — more if you’re sweating!
- Get plenty of fiber. You can do this in capsule form, but it’s best if you start by adding dietary fiber first, such as nuts, seeds, veggies, fruits, and other healthy, real foods.
- Start exercising. Movement helps your bowels to move too!
- Get tested for food allergies, or evaluated for low HCl or dysbiosis. If this still isn’t enough, you’ll probably need an exact diagnosis to come up with a treatment plan that’s right for you.
If you have the ability to see a naturopathic doctor to coordinate your care, that is always best. But if you’d like to try some of these therapies on your own, here are some probiotic and enzyme brands I recommend. Bonus: Shipping is FREE!
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