This is an even sexier topic than our last one (heartburn). We all have had those moments when we eat something that funks with our digestion when we have plans with friends….or worse, a date! In this addition, I will discuss what is considered ‘normal’, potential causes (messages your body is sending you), and how you can help your digestion using good ol’ nutrition, and plant medicines. This is a BIG subject and there will be lots of information here, you ready?
Let’s talk about TOOTS
Something to note, gas is not always correlated with bloating, and a little bit of gas is totally normal. Gas can be from swallowed air and gas production by microbes in the GI tract. We typically fart 12-25 times a day and most of it is from swallowed air while eating and drinking. If your gut is in good health you should be passing gas seamlessly without noticing it. An occasional foul-smelling fart is not necessarily abnormal. Some foods are higher in sulfur so you may find if you have eaten a larger portion of meat, eggs, onions, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, or garlic, your toots may take on an “eye-watering” effect, but should be short lived. If you are consistently noticing your gas because it’s more frequent and/or smelly than usual, then I would encourage you to start investigating.
Foods that are rich in unabsorbable fiber (insoluble fiber aka prebiotics) feed the bacteria in your colon. These are foods that cannot be digested by your human body and thus are left for the microbes to thrive. The problem is that much of the fiber we get in our good ol’ American diet is from sugars and processed foods which feed more of the unhealthy bacteria and yeast. This creates a battle with the healthy bacteria in your gut for the same terrain within the gastrointestinal tract. This battle can result in bloating and the formation of foul-smelling gas.
Constipation can be another culprit for funky smelling gas. Let’s be candid here - we all know what it’s like when we need to go #2 but can’t get to a bathroom and the farts smell pretty gross. This is because you are recycling toxins that your body wants to get rid of. The moral of this story, go poop!
If you are standing by your claim that your farts don’t smell (MmmmHmmm), but you do toot frequently, it may be as simple as you need to slow down when you eat. We have the tendency to swallow large amounts of air when we eat and drink too rapidly. Do a little experiment and SLOW down, chew your food more, be more mindful, take smaller bites, take smaller gulps of fluid, and see if that decreases your flatulence (in my opinion this word is terrible, I’m going back to farts.) Bubbly drinks and chewing gum can also promote more gas by way of ingested air.
What is Bloating?
As always, let’s start with some basics. What is bloating? This is the most common symptom of the GI tract and people describe it as an uncomfortable feeling of fullness in the abdomen, excess gas that feels stuck, with abdominal distension, although not always associated with distension. Occasional bloating is a normal part of digestive physiology and typically isn’t considered a problem until it begins to cause pain and/or disrupt your daily life. The possible causes of chronic bloating are various and complicated. It can begin in the small intestines, large intestines, or colon, and identifying this can be part of the puzzle-solving of what may be causing it.
Common Causes of Bloating
This makes sense right? If you’re not pooping enough, things get a little backed up and cause a feeling of fullness and bloating. Interesting fact - did you know a human gastrointestinal tract can hold up to 50 lbs of poop!?!?!? You're welcome.
In the holistic health world, constipation is considered not having, at minimum, at least one complete bowel movement a day - this doesn’t mean a couple of terds a day, that is still considered constipated. This is also a big subject that I think I’ll write about in this Learning Series, but for now, I’ll discuss a few reasons why you may be constipated. This could be caused by inflammation from food intolerances or alcohol, causing a decrease in gut motility. This could be from not drinking enough water and your body is extracting it from your colon and making your stool hardened and difficult to poop. It could be from not eating enough insoluble fiber to keep things moving. Different medications can cause constipation. Not moving your body enough can cause constipation, and for us ladies out there, hormonal changes can get us feeling a bit stopped up.
Altered Gut Flora (Dysbiosis)
I touched on this above, but let’s expand on this further. The human microbiome is one of my favorite subjects to nerd out about. We are COVERED from head to toe (and beyond - microbial cloud…say wha??) with microbes but the biggest concentration of microbes is in the colon. When bacteria digest sugars (fermentation), they create gas as a metabolite. Because of this hyper concentration of our little friends in the colon, this is where most of the fermentation and gas production occurs. Some types of
bacteria create more gas than others, so it’s important to have a balanced diversity of microbes in your gut. If you have an overgrowth in the upper intestines, you may experience more extreme bloating and belching right after meals (see below for SIBO). There are many reasons our gut microbiome becomes altered. Pesticides sprayed on foods, pharmaceutical medicines, low-fiber, highly-processed foods, lack of healthy movement, and overuse of antibiotics are some major causes. Once we lose our diversity of microbes, it makes space for others to grow in higher counts, which can lead to some nasty symptoms….not just in the gut, but let’s leave the focus on bloating for now.
Food Sensitivities and Intolerances
This is one of the more common reasons for bloating. Many of us have become accustomed to feeling bloated after a meal that we forget to question that something may be going on. Our body is sending us a message that the food or foods we are eating are causing a reaction, which can often mean there is more widespread inflammation going on in the body.
What’s the difference between food intolerance and food sensitivity? Intolerance means you don’t have the appropriate enzymes available to break down the food before it enters your large intestines. This allows microbes in the GI tract to feed off the larger particles of food and create all kinds of bloating and gas. A great example of this is lactose intolerance. Research has found that almost 70% of North Americans have a lactase deficiency and experience symptoms after eating the plethora of dairy that’s in our food. If you experience bloating, constipation, and gas….it may be as simple as removing dairy. Now, it is possible to have a sensitivity to dairy as well, and here’s the difference.
Food sensitivities are an immune response, similar to food allergies, but with different immune responders. Food allergies involve histamines and can be anywhere from sneezing, congestion, watery eyes, and hives, to anaphylaxis and tend to be an immediate response. Food sensitivities are an antibody immune response to particles of food that your body is recognizing as an invader and can be more subtle. Symptoms can take 24 to 72 hours to present. People who have food sensitivities can go a lifetime without ever knowing they have one due to delayed reaction times and vague symptoms that mirror common ailments. Bloating is a great sign that you need to pay attention. Other symptoms that are commonly reported with food sensitivities are achy joints/tendinitis, headaches/migraines, brain fog, anxiety/depression, and diarrhea/constipation.
A little side note on food intolerances and sensitivities: It is estimated that about 20-30% of the population has a food sensitivity. Many people question why there is an increasing number of humans with this issue. Our food and medical system is jacked! We spray pesticides on our produce, then it seeps into the drinking water. These pesticides, specifically glyphosate, kill bacteria. That means the microbes in our gut suffer as well. We also eat WAY more processed foods and preservatives and fewer vegetables than we ever have in the past. Doctors prescribe antibiotics like it’s candy rather than trying more natural methods of fighting bacterial infections first, and we move our bodies less than we did in the past. All this to say, we have less microbial diversity and less healthy plant fiber to feed the good microbes. This is a perfect recipe for a malfunctioning gut mucosa leading to increased permeability, a confused immune system, and an antibody response to foods that have rarely been a problem in the past.
Alcohol Induced Intestinal Inflammation
This is not talked about as often as food intolerances. From my own experience, I cut out dairy and gluten but continued drinking alcohol and noted that even in small amounts, caused bloating and a cascade of inflammation in my body. It seems obvious, but I think it’s so accepted in our culture and no one really wants to talk about how terrible alcohol is for our health.
Most people understand that alcohol damages the liver, but it also leads to inflammation in the gut due to
oxidative stress and the promotion of pathogenic bacterial overgrowth. An inflamed GI tract causes a cascade of issues, but to stay with the theme of the article, it slows the forward movement of bowel contents and can lead to bloating, gas, and distention. A “beer belly” is more than just fat, it’s severe bloating as well.
Stress and Psychosocial Issues
Your gut is home to the Enteric Nervous System. It’s like your second brain and contains 500 million neurons. Nerves can either speed up your transit times or slow them down - and sometimes both at the same time in different parts of your GI tract causing a mixed picture of the sensation of bloating while also having diarrhea.
Chronic stress can alter your microbes and this gut flora change leads to excess gas production and inflammation which, as discussed above, can lead to bloating. Lack of sleep is also a stress trigger that follows a similar pathway toward bloating.
At this point, there’s no denying that the gut-brain connection is a real thing. If you have a considerable amount of stress in your life and don’t have the tools to regulate your nervous system, it is likely that you also have some GI complaints. Often times people with frequent GI complaints will receive a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndroom (IBS).
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
The word syndrome means a collection of symptoms, rather than a disease. Irritable Bowel syndrome includes symptoms such as; bloating, gas, cramping, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal distention, and pain. Those diagnosed with IBS tend to struggle with mental health and research shows that they experience higher levels of depression, anxiety, and distress than the general population.
In the holistic lens, treatment is often directed at mental health and regulation of the nervous system. By calming down the stress response, there are fewer microbial changes and less inflammation, which allows the digestive tract to function normally. Western medicine practitioners want to prescribe pharmaceuticals that treat the symptoms rather than getting to the root cause of IBS. It’s clear I have some opposing opinions, but that’s for another article!
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
If you experience extreme bloating, distention, and/or belching within an hour of eating, this could be an indication that you have an overgrowth of microbes in the upper intestines. This is called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). There’s a slew of symptoms along with bloating associated with SIBO - heartburn, nausea, fatigue, nutritional deficiencies, and histamine intolerance are a few to name.
SIBO is a complex disorder of the GI tract and requires eliminating many foods and in severe cases specific antibiotics to wipe out the microbes that are too far up in the digestive tract. Diagnosing SIBO requires breath tests that are confirming there are certain metabolite gases from the microbes. It’s not completely understood what causes SIBO, but some suspected causes are low stomach acid, slow intestinal motility, altered gut microbes, and alcohol abuse. Many people with SIBO have reported an intestinal infection before their SIBO symptom presentation.
Low Stomach Acid Production
It is estimated that about 20% of people have low stomach acid production. Stomach acid helps to break down food in the stomach, along with enzymes secreted by the pancreas, and bile secreted by the gall bladder. If food is not broken down sufficiently before entering the small intestines, larger particles of food, like proteins and carbohydrates, ferment in the upper intestines creating large amounts of gas, possibly causing heartburn and bloating.
The thyroid, located right below your voicebox, regulates metabolism in the body. Thyroid hormones can affect how fast your heart beats, how deeply you breathe, and, ding ding ding, the forward motility of your digestive tract. Hypothyroidism affects about 5% of the population and one of the signs of hypothyroidism may be bloating, along with fatigue, constipation, feeling cold, and muscle weakness. Interestingly, the majority of hypothyroid cases are caused by Hashimoto’s disease which is an autoimmune disorder that attacks your cells in the body. Often people with Hashimoto’s will also have low stomach acid because the body attacks the acid producing cells in the stomach as well, which can exacerbate bloating.
Hormonal changes in women can also be a cause of bloating and water retention, and these symptoms can be exaggerated when there’s an “imbalance” of estrogen and progesterone. It’s common to experience bloat from water retention with estrogen dominance, and progesterone dominance can often slow the bowels down and cause bloating.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Cancer
I wouldn’t be a good practitioner if I didn’t mention and assess for more serious cases of bloating and abdominal distension, which is why it’s always good to go to a doctor to rule out more serious causes.
Ovarian and liver cancer can affect the liver and cause a malfunction in the way the blood flows through the liver. This can cause ascites, which is fluid in the abdominal cavity associated with a feeling of fullness. The tumors associated with stomach and colon cancer can obstruct the intestines which can dysregulate the digestive system and create bloating and distension.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a term used to describe disorders involving long-standing inflammation of the digestive tract and encompasses Chron’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both diseases are characterized by bloating, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, fatigue, and weight loss. For some people, IBD is only a mild illness. For others, it's a debilitating condition that can lead to life-threatening complications.
Awareness and Embodiment
In our modern world, we are busy and often very disconnected from our bodies. We are living in our heads and thoughts and forget many times that we even have a body. If you’re reading this article, it means that you are aware of some discomforts. You have gotten this far in this VERY exciting article because you have some notable bloating and gas. Now, I invite you to take it a step further and begin to bring awareness to more of the details. When do you feel this? What did you eat? How do your mind and soul feel? Where is the discomfort? What time of your cycle is it (for womb holders)? How long has this been going on? How frequently do you feel bloated and gassy? How have your stress levels and sleep been? Beginning to ask yourself these questions gets you into your body and more mindful of the messages your body is sending you!
Another piece to the awareness practice is sort of gross but necessary. One of my unfortunate strengths from 13 years of taking care of humans, is that my nose is pretty trained. Yours too can be trained! Exciting right? Take note of the differences in your….scent. Constipated farts smell different than sulfur farts. Look at your poop every time you use le toilette!
Malabsorption-of-fat poop looks different than undigested-food-poop. Pay attention to your body, as gross and amazing as it is, it’s yours!
If you suspect there is a food trigger, I recommend embarking on a food elimination plan to get clear. The elimination food plan can be a bit complex and requires increased awareness and embodiment, and for that reason alone is a great practice. The gold standard is to remove a suspected food trigger for 6 weeks, then reintroduce it in a larger amount. Pay attention to how you feel. A journal is a must for this because as humans we are pretty forgetful about how we felt, even a couple of weeks in the past. It’s also important to read food labels as trigger foods are snuck into processed foods in many different forms. The top 5 most common food triggers are gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, and corn.
Another big nutritional piece is healthy fiber. Pay attention to the quality of fiber you are eating, and
ensure there is a variety and an abundance of vegetables and fruits in your diet. This is the number one topic I discuss with my clients to improve gut health. There are two types of fiber - soluble and insoluble. If you eat a wide variety of plant-based foods, you will get a healthy combination of both. Insoluble fiber is
bulking and will pull water into the intestinal tract to keep things moving while feeding your microbial playground. Soluble fiber helps you feel satiated while lowering blood sugar and cholesterol and overall keeps digestion running at a perfect pace for your body to extract nutrients.
Polyphenol-rich food is also integral for a healthy microbiome. Foods such as cacao, coffee, dark berries, dark leafy greens, nuts, many spices, and olives contain antioxidants that reduce damage to the intestinal lining. These foods have also been shown to promote increased amounts of healthy microbes in the gut.
About 70% of your diet should come from plants. Buy organic as much as possible. Here’s a helpful guide to know which organic produce to spend your money on and which are an absolute “hell no” to conventional growing methods.
Try your best to move away from processed foods most of the time. If it has a barcode and/or a box, it’s processed and that takes away from the quality of the food. I acknowledge we live in a world of food as celebration and fun, so I typically recommend the 80/20 guideline. Eighty percent of the time eat as healthy as possible, the other 20%, f*uck it…indulge and enjoy the pleasures of life in the form of delicious food!
Unfortunately, our soil is depleted of nutrients due to overfarming. Most North Americans are magnesium deficient. Magnesium has many functions but specifically helps muscle contraction. It’s essential for the forward motility of your digestive tract. I encourage everyone to take a magnesium supplement. This also helps with sleep and calms a frazzled nervous system. Unless you know your farmer and know they are working to regenerate the soil, you aren’t getting enough magnesium from your food. Note: magnesium oxide is shit… literally - it does not absorb well and acts as a laxative and will make you poop. I recommend magnesium citrate - it’s cheap and decently bioavailable.
I also recommend Omega3 fatty acids to help modulate inflammatory pathways and improve gut integrity. I also recommend my clients get their vitamin D levels checked and supplement if low. Many of us are deficient, even if we’re out in the sun a lot. If your levels are low, your gut integrity isn’t great and may contribute to food sensitivities. Many people ask me about probiotics. My feeling is that probiotics can be useful at times, but if you are eating a shitty diet, probiotics have a LOT to fight against and you may not notice any benefits. I also feel that we are still learning about probiotics and the microbiome and some probiotic formulas may work for some people and not for others. In my humble opinion, healthy food is your friend. Eat fermented food and a wide variety of plants in all colors, use tools to reduce stress and regulate the nervous system, drink lots of water (at least 2 liters a day), and move your body.
We’re at the fun part. Farts are fun, but plants are way cooler.
Herbs supportive of alleviating gas:
Cardamom - Think chai spices yum! This is a very effective herb for digestion.
Fennel - Fennel is one of my favorites and is pretty easy to chew on some seeds if you are experiencing uncomfortable bloat.
Ginger - Ginger chews can be a nice way to alleviate gas. I love ginger and could easily chew on a piece of the root.
Peppermint - Peppermint tea is always a nice way to end a meal and has other digestive benefits as well.
Cloves - This would be a good one as a tincture or tea.
Herbs supportive for GI motility (help you poop):
Dandelion root - Also really great for the liver and feeds the good bacteria.
Chicory root - Again, really great for the liver and feeds the good bacteria.
Burdock root - This is another all-around great plant medicine. Awesome for the gut and also moves lymphatic fluids to alleviate bloating and puffiness.
Yellow dock root - This one is a bit more of a motility promoter than the above but is still very gentle and mild.
These are very gentle and help keep things moving in your digestive tract. If you need a stronger herb with laxative effects, I would recommend senna leaf or Traditional Medicinals makes Smooth Move tea which is a great medicinal tea that also tastes good!
Herbs supportive of the nervous system:
Chamomile - You may have heard me say it before, but this is one of my favorites because of its affinity for the digestive tract as well as the nervous system. A chamomile tea after dinner will help digestion and get you ready for some good quality sleep! Winning!
Kava - When you need a quick nervous system reset, kava is your go to. I like this as a tincture. It’s fast acting and helps to regulate a frazzled nervous system.
Catnip - Yes, it’s also a great herb for humans! It doesn’t do the same to us as those crazy cats. Catnip tea is a superstar to calm the nervous system and helps with digestion with its bitter flavor profile. This is another great post-dinner tea that will set you up for a great sleep.
Valerian - I like this as a tincture. Again, this is another powerful nervous system reset. For some, this can be more of a sedative and you may want to take this closer to bedtime. If you are someone that is frequently irritable and feels your body temp is hotter than most, this one is not for you.
Skullcap - This one can be taken as a tincture or a tea. Tea is going to be more sedating. This herb is calming for the musculoskeletal system as well. It’s a bitter too, so helps with digestion.
Milky Oats - This is a classic nervous system tonic. This isn’t as “fast-acting” as the others, but taken over a longer period helps to regulate the nervous system. I like this as a tincture with a bit of glycerine which makes it a bit sweeter.
Herbs supportive for pain from bloating and cramping:
Cramp bark - This is a great and fast-acting plant medicine for stomach cramping. It helps relax the smooth muscle of the digestive tract (and the uterus for cramps).
Wild yam - Again, great as a tincture and fast-acting. This is a super herb if you got dosed with a food trigger. Wild yam relaxes the smooth muscle and decreases gas in the bowels.
Chamomile - All around power herb. Tea or tincture form will be helpful to generally relax the digestive tract and the nervous system.
Peppermint - This is a great post-dinner tea to aid in healthy digestion while calming any cramping down.
Herbs to support the intestinal lining integrity:
Calendula - Calendula is a superpower skin healer. This applies to the tissue lining the intestinal tract as well.
Plantain leaf - This is also a superpower skin healer and in conjunction with calendula…watch out. Both of these are better as teas. A tincture isn't making contact with the tissue like the tea is.
Marshmallow leaf or root - We need a nice moist mucosal lining for the immune system of the gut to properly function. Marshmallow brings moisture to the mucosal linings all over the body.
Licorice root - Another superpower herb with many healing qualities, but in this case, licorice also brings moisture to the mucosal lining of the GI tract.
Herbs that promote secretion of digestive juices:
Dandelion root and leaf - This is an all-around great herb for digestion, but when taken before meals as a tincture, can help prepare your body to digest food.
Orange peel - You will find this in many digestive bitters formulas as it is a straight bitter. You can also keep your orange peels and nibble on a little of the skin before meals.
Cardamom - As you can see, this is a great digestive herb. It helps reduce gas while promoting the secretion of bile, enzymes, and stomach acid.
Oregon Grape root - I prefer to substitute this one for gentian. It is extremely bitter that also has strong antimicrobial properties. This is a great tincture to have around.
Well…. I think we did it. I truly hope this helps you have a better idea of what may be going on. This is a TON of information and can feel a bit overwhelming, particularly when you are trying to be your own detective. I highlighted some of the more essential therapeutics for the most common causes of your sexy gas and bloat. I will go ahead and plug myself here and say that I can help you to identify patterns to get to the bottom (no pun intended) of your digestive complaints and we’ll create a plan together to make any necessary changes and formulate herbs to support your body and mind. Reach out to schedule an appointment.