Dinner has been drool-worthy. Your hostess outdid herself with a feast that would’ve tickled Matt Preston’s cravat – but now you’re squirming under the pressure of a tighter waistband as your stomach seems to inflate like a balloon.
According to dietitian Lila Bruk, that’s exactly what’s happening. “Bloating is a distension of the abdomen. It usually takes place when air or fluid gets trapped in the gut,” she explains. It can also occur if digestion is interrupted, causing unprocessed food to travel to the gut where it ferments and creates gas.
A number of factors can cause it, from the food you eat and medical conditions (like food intolerances) to even how fast you talk.
“Bloating is an extremely common symptom, experienced by most people at some stage,” says Dr Ela Manga, an integrative medicine practitioner.
“In most cases, bloating resolves by itself. However, it could be a symptom of a much more serious issue, so consult your doctor if it’s accompanied by diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, abdominal or rectal pain, persistent heartburn, blood in your stool or fever.”
Holy moly. But if none of these other symptoms are present, you can banish the bloat with these steps:
You may use them to help keep your waistline in check, but artificial sweeteners could make you swell, warns Bruk: “They’re hard to digest and thus sit in the gut where they ferment and release gas.” Sorbitol and xylitol are particularly blame-worthy, according to Manga.
Boost the good bacteria
Manga suggests boosting your diet with probiotics, as these friendly bacteria help to keep the growth of gas-producing micro-organisms in the gut in check. Digestive enzymes may also help.
Slow down, sister
If you tend to gobble, gulp and go, rethink your eating habits. “Eating on the move, or too quickly, can make you swallow a lot of air,” says Manga. Chewing gum, smoking and talking while you eat may have a similar effect. “Try to eat slowly and consciously. Make mealtimes relaxed occasions – eating when you’re stressed can interfere with digestion.”
Exercise the excess
Working up a sweat is an important weapon in your battle against the bloat as it helps kickstart your digestion. Bruk recommends doing at least 30 minutes, four times a week. However, light exercise, like walking, is preferable to heavy workouts, which can actually hinder digestion.
“Intense exercise raises your body’s adrenaline levels. What’s more, during a hard session, blood moves towards the extremities and away from the gut,” she explains. A brisk walk after your meal may be all you need to feel more settled.
Go easy on the alcohol
Ever noticed how puffy you look after a big night out? That’s because alcohol is a diuretic and, the more often you run to the loo, the less fluids are available in your body for digestion, leading to constipation – a common bloating culprit.
Stop the discomfort
If bloating is part of your collection of PMS symptoms, don’t worry – that’s normal. High hormone levels at that time of the month cause your digestive system to move sluggishly, so everything travels more slowly through your intestines; hence that uncomfortable feeling of fullness – even before you’ve reached for the Ferrero Rochers – which is often accompanied by constipation.
You have the hormone progesterone to thank for this unpleasant state of affairs, explains Manga. “It’s been linked to water retention, and women produce more progesterone right before and during their periods than at any other time during their cycle.”
So what can you do? Dr Arien van der Merwe, author of Health & Happiness, swears by a blend of vitamins and botanical remedies to relieve the symptoms of PMS. Magnesium and vitamin B6 are particularly effective for easing bloating, especially when taken as part of a multivitamin complex that includes calcium, vitamins C and D and boron.
Chaste berry, meanwhile, will help to reduce water retention. Van der Merwe recommends making these supplements part of your lifestyle: “Although you might start to notice a difference after the first month, you need to take them daily for at least three months before symptoms really improve.”
Cut the caffeine
Forgo the coffee and you’ll feel lighter. That’s because caffeine slows digestion and can lead to constipation – and the accompanying discomfort.
Harvest some herbs
Relief may be as nearby as the herb garden in your backyard, says Manga. Ginger, for example, is a good all-purpose digestive aid and is excellent for soothing the digestive system. Peppermint, caraway seed, fennel and aniseed can also be counted on to coordinate digestive processes, while parsley, a natural diuretic, is a good choice if premenstrual water retention has made you puff up.
Look out for liquids
Hydration is key to preventing bloating – but, while water will help keep it at bay, soft drinks are likely to bring it on. Carbonated drinks release carbon dioxide into the intestinal tract, making it feel like you swallowed a
balloon. So keep it plain and natural. “Water helps to improve digestion, so it reduces the risk of constipation,” explains Bruk. Two litres a day will keep your system working smoothly.
Say no to salt
If you’re retaining fluid, you’re probably bloated too. One solution is to cut down on your salt intake. You can also stock up on foods rich in potassium – think avos, bananas, yoghurt and salmon – as these help to counterbalance sodium. They’re also natural diuretics, says Manga. Bye bye, bloating.
Choose your foods
Those jokes about beans have been well earned: they, and other foods like peas, lentils, cabbage, onions, broccoli and cauliflower, can seriously puff you up. The reason? “These foods contain complex carbohydrates, which often remain incompletely digested in the stomach and small intestine,” says integrative medicine practitioner Dr Ela Manga.
+ Although fibre from fruit, vegies and whole grains help your body eliminate waste, some high-fibre foods are also gas producers. Give your body a break by removing wheat products from your diet for two to four weeks, then reintroduce them slowly and watch for a reaction (you might be intolerant). When cooking pulses, soak them in water overnight to get rid of the indigestible sugars in the skin.
+ Fatty foods are also on the “to avoid” list. The problem here is that fat slows digestion, giving food time to ferment – hence that lingering feeling of fullness.
+ Try a process of elimination to identify which foods affect you most. Start with common culprits like dairy then systematically remove ingredients you suspect make you blow up. You’ll soon see which ones should be removed permanently. How long before you can expect to do up that top button again?
“That depends on you as an individual, the cause of bloating and the severity,” says Bruk. “If your symptoms started in the afternoon, you may only feel completely better in the morning.”
+ For best results, combine long-term lifestyle changes (like a diet low in fibre) with immediate measures, such as a walk after meals. Go on ahead, trumpet trousers.