Always got a bloated belly? Despite 70% of us complaining that we frequently suffer from an uncomfortably swollen stomach, fewer than one in three of us seeks help to ease it.
“Digestive problems that cause bloating are all too common,” says ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ GP Dr Pixie McKenna. “But unfortunately many of us suffer in silence instead of examining our own habits or making a simple trip to the pharmacist to ask for an over-the-counter remedy.”
Often bloating follows a large meal or consuming certain trigger foods, so it makes sense to avoid the very common causes, such as spicy foods, caffeine and alcohol, and to try not to eat late at night.
However, as well as all the usual suspects, Dr McKenna says there are many less well-known causes, which could be contributing to bloating – from smoking to eating too much fruit or even chewing on your pen cap!
Here are 10 hidden causes of bloating and how to avoid them:
1 Chewing gum
Gum can help to prevent bad breath, control excess snacking and clean the teeth following a meal, but there can be a downside. “Chewing gum causes bloating because we take in a lot of air when we chew,” explains Dr McKenna.
This can increase the amount of gas in the digestive tract. Couple this with high levels of hard-to-digest artificial sweeteners in many gum brands and a perfect storm for abdominal gas can be the result.
Beat it: If you’ve got a gum habit, try switching over to nibbling nuts or maybe even popcorn.
2 Wearing big pants
Your control undies might pull in and flatten any unsightly bulges under your party frock, but this very constriction is problematic because it can increase the symptoms of bloating and stomach distention. Tight clothing puts pressure on the abdomen and makes it much more difficult for gas to pass along normally, resulting in trapped wind.
Beat it: Only wear your Spanx for short, two-to-three hour periods for maximum comfort, and leave them off if you’re eating a big meal.
3 Eating diet foods
One of the biggest hidden sources of bloating is the artificial sweeteners found in ‘sugar-free’ foods. The reason they can claim to contain no calories is because the body simply can’t digest them. As the body struggles to break them down, an excess of gas can ensue, which in turn leads to bloating.
Beat it: Check the ingredients list for sweeteners before you buy – you may be better off with the full-fat variety.
4 Smoking a cigarette or chewing your pen top
These two common bad habits are also big culprits when it comes to sucking in and swallowing excess air and saliva, warns Dr McKenna.
Smoking has a two-fold effect, as the smoke can also affect digestion. Chemicals in cigarettes weaken the lower oesophageal sphincter – the muscle between the oesophagus and stomach that keeps stomach contents from flowing back into the oesophagus – leading to heartburn and excess gas.
Beat it: Stop smoking and pen-chomping, and find something healthier to do. Try an over-the-counter remedy like Maalox Plus tablets.
5 Getting stressed out
“Stress seriously affects the body’s ability to digest food,” explains pharmacist Steve Riley. When we eat on-the-run or when we’re feeling anxious, our body pumps out the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which inhibit the digestive system, preventing it working effectively. This can cause bloating and, in the long-term, symptoms such as IBS.”
Beat it: Always sit down to eat, slow your pace and enjoy your food, chewing it thoroughly.
6 Badly-fitting dentures
Evidence shows that people whose dentures aren’t secure tend not to chew their food properly. Eating quickly and not chewing your food well can cause air swallowing that leads to bloating, belching and discomfort.
Beat it: See your dentist to check your fitting, or invest in stronger denture adhesive such as Poligrip Ultra Denture Fixative Cream.
7 Eating too much fruit
It may be good for our general health but fructose – the sugar found in fruit – can be a bloating culprit for certain people, who have problems absorbing fructose in their small intestine – the first part of the digestive tract.
Undigested fructose is then carried to the colon, where our normal bacteria quickly devour it – producing lots of gas in the process and causing the intestine to swell, which is experienced as bloating, cramping and trapped wind.
Beat it: If you suspect your body is struggling to digest fruit sugar, talk to your GP who may refer you to a dietitian for food advice.
8 Not drinking enough water
It may seem illogical, but simple dehydration is a common cause of a distended belly, as it makes the body fear a shortage and start to retain water. At the same time, guzzling liquids too fast can also lead to a painfully swollen tummy, as your body can’t absorb large amounts of water all at once.
Beat it: Take in small sips of water regularly throughout the day.
9 Your daily dairy
If you repeatedly experience a bloated belly after eating or drinking dairy products, such as milk and cheese, it’s possible you may be lactose intolerant – especially if it’s accompanied by stomach cramps and diarrhoea.
This is a common digestive problem where the body is unable to digest lactose, the type of sugar mainly found in dairy foods.
Beat it: There’s no cure as such, but limiting your intake of lactose-containing food and drink will usually help control the symptoms.
However, reduction of dairy should only be attempted under the supervision of your GP, who may refer you to a dietitian for further advice to ensure you don’t miss out on vital nutrients, such as calcium.
Many everyday over-the-counter medicines can trigger a bloated tum, including aspirin, diarrhoea medication and iron pills. This can be because they contain sugars that themselves are difficult to digest, or because they contain ingredients that stop the natural enzymes present in your body from digesting normal food.
Beat it: If you suspect that a non-prescription medicine that you’re taking is triggering bloating, talk to your pharmacist for advice on finding a suitable alternative.