Battle of The Bloat: This Is War
Stress, mineral imbalance, hydration, parasites, wrong types of food for our individual biology, mastication, quantity and allergens. So much can cause digestive trouble. But we can fight back.
*This article was previously published March 14, 2021 on my blog at forhealthandtruth.com under the title Battling Bloating and has been updated with new information.
Digestive issues are difficult to deal with but they can be overcome. They can be complicated due to our modern and unnatural lifestyles, diets, environments and modern agriculture. Our soils are depleted of not only minerals, but also of the microbial diversity that would otherwise make our food more nutritious allowing us to digest a wide variety of foods. On top of this, our food is grown and sprayed with toxic chemicals that break down the lining of our guts thereby inhibiting our ability to digest what we eat. These chemicals and practices not only cause digestive issues but also lead to cancer, depression and other physical and mental health issues. There’s a number of things we can do or address to help our bodies in digesting the food we eat and reduce the prevalent problem of gas, bloating and digestive distress.
Not everyone can tolerate high amounts of fat. Even if you can there’s still a threshold which can vary from person to person. If you eat more fat in a meal than your body can handle it can cause gas and bloating due to irritation and inflammation of the gallbladder. You do need the right amount, however. Ten grams of fat seems to be the optimal amount of fat to stimulate bile secretion by the gallbladder and fully empty it and keep it exercised. Letting bile sit and accumulate in the gallbladder can result in unhealthy thick bile sludge and gall stones. Aim for about ten grams of healthy fat per meal and adjust accordingly based on your body’s reaction. If you need to reduce the amount, try to reduce it by about 2 or 3 grams and see how you fair. If you’re on a high fat diet you might want to look into taking lipase enzyme with your meals to assist in breaking down the fat. When the gallbladder is inflamed, it also irritates the phrenic nerve. Your phrenic nerve goes from the abdomen, through the chest, and into the neck. When you eat a meal that’s too fatty, it puts pressure on this nerve and causes referred pain in your right shoulder. This can also cause headaches. Dr. Eric Berg has an insightful video on a big fatty meal, bloating and the effect on the phrenic nerve. Everyone is biologically different so you may need to go through some trial and error or work with a nutritional coach or registered dietician.
LIMIT WATER DURING MEALS/ADDRESS LOW STOMACH ACID:
Low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria) means you don’t have the proper hydrochloric acid levels necessary to break down your food. This could be due to age, vitamin deficiency (zinc or B vitamins), medications or stress. Eating too quickly can also weaken or suppress stomach acid. Drinking celery juice can also help rebuild stomach acid. Putting some sea salt on your food can help support stomach acid since chloride in salt (sodium chloride) contributes to the chloride present in stomach acid (hydrochloric acid).
When it comes to drinking with your meals, admittedly there is back and forth on this. While you’ll find information both dismissing or supporting warm or room temperature water with meals or stating that you should not drink any water with meals, what is widely agreed upon is that drinking cold water with meals does in fact hinder digestion. This is due to the fact that cold water changes the consistency of the food we eat, such as making fatty foods harden and more difficult to digest. Also, cold water decreases the temperature of our body during digestion and reduces the “fire” or the digestive capacity of our stomachs. We need to be allowing our bodies to heat up as normal when digesting food, not cooling down. For this same reason you don’t want to go out without warm clothes on into the freezing cold right after a big meal as this can hinder digestion. What’s important is the temperature and amount of water or fluid. It’s also said that drinking too much water during meals in general has the effect of diluting stomach acid which impairs digestion leading to gas and bloating. On the other hand, the stomach does have the ability to sense when its pH increases and its acids are being diluted and will adjust to secrete more acid. This is known as buffer capacity. There is a limit to this at about 1 liter of water (roughly 34 ounces).
What is sure is that as we age our ability to secret stomach acid does diminish and being aware of how much we drink with our meals becomes increasingly important because weak or low stomach acid is more susceptible to dilution. Anecdotally, drinking about 4 oz or less of fluids with each meal doesn’t seem to pose much of a problem but more than this could hinder digestion. One trick I’ve learned is that taking a hydrochloric acid or betaine HCL supplement such as BiOptimizers HCL Breakthrough can greatly assist in digestion and retaining the potency of your stomach acid especially if you’re going to drink fluids with your meal. HCL Breakthrough also includes trace minerals which are important for digestion as minerals themselves can act as enzymes thus improving digestion. It’s a formula unlike any other and has all the components needed for optimal digestion and preventing gas and bloating for a supercharged day without the brain fog, low energy and depressed mood that can come along with digestive woes.
These symptoms may indicate low stomach acid production:
MAINTAIN MINERAL BALANCE:
If you're not taking in enough water your body will cause you to hold on to water in compensation and you will bloat. Facial bloating in particular is one of the last signs that you’re dehydrated. It’s a last ditch effort by your body to retain water and minerals to stay hydrated. Mineral loss, which comes along with dehydration, is one big reason your body is retaining water. It’s an attempt to keep the minerals that are supposed to be in your water such as sodium and magnesium. Magnesium is another mineral in which a deficiency will also lead to water retention and facial bloating, especially in women. Magnesium deficiency can also lead to Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, bone disease and chronic fatigue. Also, keep in mind that too much water can cause you to pee too often, which causes you to lose sodium and water. Your body then compensates by retaining more water. Drinking too fast can also worsen this effect. Aim for half your body weight in ounces of water per day and that should keep you in proper balance. Adjust your intake accordingly if you’re very active or when it’s hotter and you tend to sweat more. Natural spring or mineral water in a glass bottle is best to maximize your minerals and avoid the hormone disrupting chemicals in plastic. You can also try PerfectAmino Electrolytes by Bodyhealth to stay hydrated especially if you’re active to ensure the right balance of all your electrolytes and minerals.
For the same reasons too much water can cause you to bloat, caffeine can cause you to bloat as well. Caffeine can serve as a diuretic and cause you to urinate frequently. However, according to healthline.com in order for coffee to make you lose more water than you consume (which is what happens in dehydration) you would have to drink about 5 cups (40 oz or 1.2 liters) of coffee per day (which some people actually do) for this to happen. So just be cognizant and keep it reasonable.
WATCH SODIUM LEVELS:
This is related to mineral balance but deserves its own section as the large part of the population takes in more sodium than they need. This is especially true of regular table salt that’s been stripped of its beneficial minerals. A good quality seal salt such as Celtic Sea Salt or Colima Sea Salt is the best thing to get and retains the naturally occurring minerals. It’s still best to watch your intake though as too much sodium can prevent you from excreting enough acid from your body. Too much sodium (hypernatremia) causes you to retain more water to dilute all that sodium in your blood. Mineral balance is very delicate. According to the American Heart Association, we should be consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day with and ideal amount of 1,500 mg per day. On average, Americans consume more than 3,400 mg per day. On the flip side, insufficient sodium (hyponatremia) can be just as harmful, if not more. Although not as common of a condition, too little sodium in your blood can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, lethargy, low energy, cognitive impairment such as confusion, cramping, muscle weakness, irritability, restlessness and bloating.
MANY TYPES OF FOOD AT ONE MEAL:
Too Many different types of food at one meal is hard to digest because different types of food require different enzymes and different environments (stomach PH). You may overwhelm the stomach and its ability to release so many types of enzymes required to digest the entire meal. Different foods also have different transit times. Fruit digests the fastest while protein and fat take much longer. For example, if you eat a steak and a piece of fruit in the same meal, the meat will impair the digestion of the fruit at the appropriate rate and the fruit will sit and rot in the gut instead of rapidly digesting as it normally would when eaten alone or with compatible foods. If your digestive system is not compromised in any way you may be able to handle all those different types of food at one meal, but the majority of the population has some degree of weakened digestion by virtue of our food supply, lifestyle and stress levels. Eating foods that have similar digestion rates can relieve an incredible amount of strain on our systems and lessen or eliminate the unpleasant symptoms that come with that. Food combining can be a deep dive. You can check out a good resource on the topic here in addition to this helpful chart on food transit times.
DO NOT OVEREAT AND CHEW YOUR FOOD WELL:
Although overeating and thorough mastication (chewing your food) are separate issues, one can lead to the other so I’ll address both here. Digestion begins in the mouth and if you’re not chewing your food well enough you’re skipping an entire step in the digestion process.
Eating too much in general (even of one type of food) overburdens the stomach and enzymes needed to digest your food. Eating too fast can also cause you to overeat due to your body not having enough time to signal that you’re full. Eat until you’re about eighty percent full then stop. Don’t ever eat until you’re uncomfortable or you feel you’re at one hundred percent capacity or more. When you overeat you’re actually getting very little nutrition from your food while still getting all the calories. Your body is now in damage control mode and its main objective is to simply get the heaping mass of food out of your system because it’s so strained and overburdened. A huge meal with all of the digestive stress, wasted physiological energy and likely fat storage with little nutrition is not a good combination of events to put it lightly. As I said, poor mastication and overeating can go hand in hand so lets’s take care of both in one fell swoop and set ourselves up for digestive success. Eat slowly, mindfully and just until satisfied.
LIMIT ALLERGENIC FOODS:
Gluten, dairy (lactose, casein), refined sugar, sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners processed carbohydrates, grains, and GMO corn and soy are among the most problematic and allergenic foods for a large segment of the population. These foods are hard to digest and can cause leaky gut (gaps in the gut lining), poor nutrient absorption, gas and bloating.
ADDRESS PARASITES/CONSIDER H. PYLORI:
Most people have parasites to some degree. They’re easy to contract through raw, undercooked or contaminated food. A small amount may not be an issue, but if it’s a certain type or a high amount then that can certainly be problematic and can wreak havoc on your body. There are a number of herbal remedies and medications that can get rid of them if you test positive for parasites or believe you have them. When it comes to H. Pylori, this bacteria that also acts as a parasite is a cause of stomach ulcers that can lead to stomach cancer. If present, symptoms include stomach pain, indigestion, gas and bloating. Just like parasites, you can get H. Pylori from undercooked or raw meat and seafood (sushi is a big offender- be sure to eat the ginger served with it as it will help kill any possible parasites or bacteria), and unwashed or contaminated food. Having strong stomach acid can also kill parasites and harmful bacteria like H. Pylori. There are antibiotics and certain probiotics, such as lactobicillus reuteri, that can help treat an H. Pylori infection. You may need to take antibiotics but it is advised to look into a natural route to avoid killing off your good bacteria needed for optimal gut health. If you do need to rebuild your good bacteria because of antibiotics, then prebiotics and probiotics can definitely help. We’ll talk more about prebiotics in the section on fasting.
Stress shuts down digestion and puts you into a sympathetic (flight or fight) mode and can cause a cascade of bodily consequences including hormone imbalance, weight gain, weight loss, indigestion, and water retention. A number of these effects can then cause, you guessed it, bloating. Practice deep breathing, prayer and meditation, walking, not eating when you're upset, anxious, worried, rushed or otherwise stressed out.
Fasting is a great practice and should be done periodically and responsibly. One day a week or 2-3 days intermittently is fine for most people. Longer periods may be helpful if you’re addressing a condition or illness where it's warranted or helpful. When we fast we eliminate bad bugs in our system. However, we can also eliminate good bacteria in our gut which we need for proper digestion. If this happens, a good thing to do is reintroduce good bacteria in your gut by consuming probiotics and prebiotic rich foods. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir can be good for rebuilding good gut flora. Be mindful of any reaction as some fermented foods can be allergenic to some individuals and cause a histamine reaction. Some people react and are sensitive to histamine and other amines. They may experience headaches after consuming fermented food. This happens because amines stimulate the central nervous system, increasing or decreasing blood flow, which can cause headaches and migraines. If this happens, you may want to stick with probiotic supplements or find out which fermented foods you can tolerate. Prebiotics (resistant starch) feed your good bacteria and are fantastic to consume on a regular basis. Prebiotics may be even more important than probiotics as they’re not only what feeds your good bacteria, but also prevents the overgrowth of bad bacteria. You can grow a good bacteria population in your gut by just consuming food with prebiotic fiber even without probiotics. Prebiotic foods include garlic, onions, asparagus, green bananas, oats, apples, barley, cocoa, flaxseed, yacon root and seaweed. Starchy foods such as rice, potatoes and sweet potatoes produce large amounts of resistant starch when they’re cooked and cooled. If you’re not used to a lot of fiber in your diet then you need to increase it slowly or this can cause gas, bloating or stomach upset. I feel the need to always mention that fasting isn’t for everyone and even when it is helpful for your condition it’s not to be done all the time. Fasting is a tool. Fasting done incorrectly or at the wrong time is simply malnutrition. Wield it wisely and carefully. Working with a nutritionist or dietician can be helpful.
Make sure you’re getting enough exercise and movement throughout the day. Movement affects digestion and gut motility, as well as how your body processes nutrients and how much fat you store. Include a mix of anaerobic (resistance or weight training) and aerobic (cardiovascular training such as running, swimming, hiking or walking) about three times per week. Try to go for at least a 10-15 minute walk after eating. You don’t want to do a full workout session or very strenuous activity right after a meal as this can hinder digestion and cause bloating or an upset stomach. Light to moderate movement is all you need such as a post prandial walk or even light household chores are good. This kind of movement after eating improves not only digestion, but circulation and oxygenation as well.
PUSH PLANT DIVERSITY:
There is quite a discussion to be had on bloating and eating a diet full of fiber. Fiber is absolutely key to a healthy gut, normal digestion and managing bloating. If you’re not used to a lot of fiber in your diet or have been accustomed to the SAD (Standard American Diet) lacking in an abundance of plants and eating heavily processed and refined grains, then introduce a diverse array of plants slowly and over time so your system can handle it. It also comes down to focusing mostly on the right type of fiber. As mentioned earlier, resistant starch or prebiotic fiber feeds good bacteria and produces a chemical compound called butyrate in your gut. Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid that promotes gut healing and is found in resistant starch and fiber rich foods. Butyrate can be produced by the following types of foods:
Fructo-oligosaccharides in fruit such as bananas and veggies such as onions, garlic and asparagus.
Resistant starch in green bananas, green plantain, unripe mango, brown rice, potatoes and sweet potatoes.
Pectin in apples, apricots, oranges and carrots.
Arabinogalactan in tomatoes, pears, radishes, carrots, wheat and corn (be very sure to get non-GMO corn and wheat and steer clear of wheat or other gluten-containing foods if you have an allergy or sensitivity).
Do you see how variety and diversity are crucial for gut and total body health? Just like we need microbial diversity in our soil to grow nutrient rich crops, we also need diversity in our diet to have microbial diversity in our guts to have healthy digestion and the ability to extract all the nutrition from our foods. When we have bloating issues we need to eat the right foods consistently over time and with as much variety as possible.
I know this seems odd right after telling you to push plant diversity but there stands a reason. If your gut is so compromised that the lining of your gut needs to time to heal or you have leaky gut where the junctions are not tightly fitted together anymore along with gas and bloating then an elimination diet can be very helpful. The carnivore diet is essentially an elimination diet that can give your gut the time it needs to heal. An inflamed gut with a damaged or compromised lining is further exacerbated by constant fibers (especially raw plant foods) that further irritate it and destroy it. Try it for 30 days and see how feel.
If your issue is that you lack the enzymes to digest certain foods and your stomach or gut lining isn’t severely broken down or damaged to the degree where you need to eliminate almost all fiber to let it heal, then a low FODMAP diet might be good for you. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols, a mouthful I know. The types of saccharides it refers to are types of carbohydrates (sugars) that many have trouble breaking down. Polyols are sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, erythritol, mannitol, maltitol, xylitol, lactitol, pretty much anything that ends in ‘ol’ except for isomalt and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates which are also polyols. Humans lack the enzyme to digest these and therefore almost everyone has issues with them to some degree. Severity of symptoms are mostly related to the amount you eat or the condition of your stomach.
If you can’t do a strict carnivore diet (do know that some squash and small amounts of berries are usually ok with most on the carnivore diet) a good compromise is to combine a low FODMAP diet with the carnivore diet. Focus on mainly meat but also incorporate a portion or less of foods from those allowed on the FODMAP diet. Here’s a list of some of the low and high FODMAP foods. You can download the full list here.
As a nutritional coach I teach the hand size portion method. A palm for protein, a fist for veggies, a cupped hand for carbohydrates and a thumb of fat (you can always adjust according to diet and lifestyle). It looks like this…
I’m a big proponent of getting plenty of fruits and veggies as they’re full of antioxidants, phytonutrients and polyphenols. The irony here is I would go carnivore for a time just so I could eat plenty of plants in the future. It’s a tactic that just might save your stomach. However, I must stress the importance getting high quality grass-fed, grass-finished, hormone free, antibiotic free meat if you can.
OTHER SUPPLEMENTS AND FOODS TO TRY:
Colostrum from grass-fed and grass-finished cows
Collagen or gelatin (the cooked form of collagen)
Aloe Vera meat/Aloe Vera fillets
Flaxseed gel from boiled flaxseeds
Grass-fed ghee (clarified butter)
Coconut or MCT oil