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A frequent gassy stomach could be a symptom of underlying digestive issues. Image Credit: Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio

Ever tried to shimmy into your jeans in the morning and barely managed to button them? No, you did not outgrow your daily pair overnight. You haven’t even had anything to eat yet, so this isn’t a ‘food baby’. You’re nursing excess air or gas in the stomach or the gut. It feels a lot like pins and needles under the ribcage on bad days; and at its worst, you’re doubled over in bed from cramps.

Just to be sure, poke your stomach. If you’re met with less squish and more taut belly, that’s not fat but bloating caused by gas. Sabah Mirza, Dubai Health Authority licenced clinical dietician at Beyond Nutrition in Dubai, tells Gulf News that it happens to everybody. As long as eating is a part of our lives, so will be a bloated stomach every now and then.

But not everyone likes the uncomfortable feeling of a tight drum tummy. Nutritionists help us understand why it happens and what lifestyle habits and foods we can incorporate to relieve it.

Eating too much, too quickly

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Bits of undigested food give colon bacteria more than what they bargained for. Image Credit: Unsplash/Louis Hansel

Our bodies don’t digest fibre. When we eat fibrous foods like fruits and vegetables, the fibre passes the stomach and goes straight to the colon or large intestine. Here, it becomes food for the gut bacteria. These microscopic helpers munch on fibre, release gas and create acids to keep our gut healthy.

Sometimes, these bacteria end up overeating. When we down our lunch too quickly to catch the next meeting, we’re overloading our digestive system with food, says Mirza. Our bodies don’t get sufficient time to break all the nutrients down, passing bits of undigested food to the bacteria in the colon. Even nutrients that are not fibre.

Bloating is a very nonspecific symptom; you have to play detective to detect the cause... you could have a food intolerance or malabsorption syndrome.

- Sabah Mirza, Dubai Health Authority licenced clinical dietician at Beyond Nutrition in Dubai

“We send these nutrients intact to these bacteria in the colon that wanted just fibre. They’re getting excess things to ferment, creating more gas,” added Mirza.

There you have it – the most likely cause for bloating is eating too much too quickly. Scarfing down your food in a hurry also lets in a lot of air into your stomach, adding to the bloat.

When bloating is a sign for something else

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If your stomach bloats and hurts after an apple, then you might have something called fructose intolerance. Image Credit: Unsplash/Alexandr Dzyuba

Frequent bloating can be a concern because this means you’re having trouble digesting your food properly. Pinpointing the underlying cause can only be done by a health professional, says Mirza.

“Bloating is a very nonspecific symptom; you have to play detective to detect the cause. If you come into a professional health clinic, they will look at other symptoms along with it and then what is causing bloating in different areas and such,” said Mirza. “You could have a food intolerance or malabsorption syndrome.”

A good example of food intolerance is fructose intolerance. Does your stomach hurt after having an apple? Then your body is probably not very efficient at breaking down a sugar called fructose or fruit sugar. This simple sugar travels to your gut, overfeeding the bacteria there and releasing gas.

Bloating is also seen in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a disorder where your gut is especially sensitive to stress. Causes for IBS are largely unknown, but we know it’s a combination of constipation, diarrhoea and bloated stomach cramps.

You got it from your parents

Other bloating symptoms can be found in food poisoning, poor immunity, periods of major dietary change and antibiotic use according to Stephanie Karl, Dubai-based nutritionist at Upandrunning Medical Center, who has been practising for 25 years.

Bloating tends to happen to both young and old people, possibly having some genetic influence such as hereditary fructose, lactose and gluten sensitivity. Parents often don’t talk about these things.

- Stephanie Karl, Dubai-based nutritionist at Upandrunning Medical Center

If you can’t digest lactose, another type of sugar some bodies lack an enzyme to break down, then your bloating likely comes from your parents, since lactose intolerance is hereditary.

“Bloating tends to happen to both young and old people, possibly having some genetic influence such as hereditary fructose, lactose and gluten sensitivity. Parents often don’t talk about these things,” said Karl.

‘Low-hanging fruit’ tips to prevent bloating

If none of these causes apply to you, then the good news is that you can fix bloating at home. All you have to do is ensure ideal conditions for the body to digest food in peace. Mirza says these are ‘low-hanging fruit’ tips, ones that should be part of our daily routine but, unfortunately, are not.

And it begins with something as simple as drinking water.

1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

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Your body needs sufficient water to perform its day-to-day functions. Image Credit: Pexels/Vlada Karpovich

We spend so much time in air-conditioned indoors that we rarely feel thirsty anymore.

“About 60 to 70 per cent of our body is water. In order for the body to function properly, we need to hydrate. In general, you should drink two to three litres of water every day,” said Mirza.

2. Chew your food

Yes, we do chew our food but not long enough for it to become “baby puree”. Mirza says our digestive process begins in the mouth. The more we break the food down, the easier it is for the gut to do the same. Count to 20 to 30 chews before swallowing that morsel.

3. Eat slowly

Gobbling down your food in a hurry means you’re eating air as well. “You’re introducing less air into the stomach if you eat slowly,” Mirza added.

4. Meditate

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Take a breather. Image Credit: Unsplash/Quinton Coetzee

Take part in nerve-calming activities that will help you de-stress. This could be guided breathing techniques or meditation. Mirza says de-stressing switches on our parasympathetic nervous system, a system opposite to our fight-or-flight response. With our heart rate calmer and breathing slowed down, we can now focus on digesting our food well.

5. Remove stressors during meal time

To resolve a bloated belly, start with your mental health. Mirza says we tend to overlook the mind-gut connection when studies have been increasingly proving that link.

Our bodies can’t tell the difference between an email and a lion outside the door.

- Sabah Mirza, Dubai Health Authority licenced clinical dietician at Beyond Nutrition in Dubai

“Our bodies can’t tell the difference between an email and a lion outside the door. It’s still responding to stressors the same way it has been for thousands of years,” said Mirza.

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If you can, try not to eat at your desk. Leave your workspace, have your meal and let it settle before returning. Image Credit: Unsplash/No Revisions

When we return to a stressful email after having a meal, we trigger our fight-or-flight response, also known as the sympathetic nervous system. It diverts all bodily resources to plan an escape – the last thing on its agenda is digesting your lunch.

The longer the food hangs around in the colon, the more it ends up getting fermented, leading to bloating.

“The best way to remove stress while eating is just to eat mindfully and being present in the moment. Don’t think about the past or the future,” advised Mirza.

6. Walk around a bit

“If you’ve had a meal that’s not settling well, go for a walk. Exercising, walking and moving our body are very important. This gets the peristalsis [contractions] of the intestinal muscles help move the food along,” said Mirza.

It doesn’t have to be a full cardio routine, just some “low-intensity movement” will do. If you don’t want to step out after dinner, walk up and down the length of your house for a few minutes.

Foods to relieve bloating

You can repair your gut health by using items in the pantry or fridge. A good rule of thumb, says Karl, is to have a light dinner with easily digested proteins like eggs, tofu and fish to avoid waking up with a bloated stomach.

Here are some probiotics (good bacteria), teas and potassium-rich foods that can help reduce gas:

Fermented foods

When food is broken down by yeast and bacteria, it undergoes a process called fermentation. Some fermented foods contain live microorganisms that supply the gut with good bacteria, stomping out gas.

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Fermented foods like kimchi can supply your gut with good bacteria. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Mirza points out that several cultures have their own traditional probiotic foods like kimchi (fermented vegetables in Korea), tempeh (fermented soybeans in Indonesia) and sauerkraut (fermented cabbage in Germany).

Our easiest access to a cup full of beneficial bacteria is yogurt. If there’s a bottle of apple cider vinegar in your fridge, then dilute a dollop of it in water and drink it or drizzle it over your salad.

Herbal teas

Mirza suggests the following teas to ease the digestive process:

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Some herbal teas like peppermint can help relieve a bloated tummy. Image Credit: Unsplash/Jessica Delp
  • Fennel tea
  • Peppermint tea
  • Ginger root tea
  • Artichoke leaf tea

Potassium-rich foods

Bloating can happen in the face, hands and fingers, too. Have you ever woken up with a puffy face? It’s because your body is holding on to water from last night’s salty dinner.

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Foods high in potassium like easily accessible bananas help you get rid of water-related bloating. Image Credit: iStockphoto

“Water retention puffiness is diet related. It’s from having too much sodium and not enough protein. Water will always follow salt,” said Mirza.

To balance its sodium-to-water ratio, our bodies will retain water till the excess sodium is flushed out. And potassium helps speed up that process. “Eat potassium-rich foods like cooked broccoli and cooked spinach, bananas, apricots, oranges, raisins and grains,” she said.

If you eat these on the regular, a fried or salty meal once in a while will not result in water retention bloating, Mirza adds. Consistency is key.

Despite all the remedies, if you’re still frequently met with a gassy tummy that is preventing you from functioning, visit a health professional. Oftentimes, says Karl, you will be told to keep a food diary for 30 days to identify your bloating triggers.