Picture this: I was a personal trainer at the peak of my career – I was faster, stronger and leaner than ever before. I’d worked my arse off to be the best in my industry and I finally felt like I was making it in the world…and then I get asked the question that is every woman’s WORST NIGHTMARE…”Are you pregnant?”
The afternoons were usually the worst – my stomach would be so bloated and hard I’d feel completely uncomfortable and self-conscious, and was obsessed with what people would think of me if they saw it. It became increasingly difficult to concentrate on anything else, it felt like my bloated belly was taking over my life.
I think we’ve all been there. Maybe our clothes are a bit snug one day, or the belly’s a bit bloated, and all of a sudden we feel like we look 6 months along. Ugh. Devastated doesn’t even begin to come close to how I feel when people notice the bloat monster. How about you? Does it raise your self-esteem even a tiny bit? Does it make you feel like you’re in control of your life? Nope.
My bloating was taking over my life. Nothing I did helped. If anything, it was getting worse. I tried cutting out various food groups (like gluten, dairy, wheat), I did food allergy tests, blood tests, parasite tests, colonic irrigation, anti-gas pills and even various laxatives, but still I could not get my stomach to deflate. To say that this messed with my brain is a massive understatement – even though I weighed less and was leaner than I’d ever been, I felt fat, disgusting, and like a complete failure.
So why the hell was it happening? And why couldn’t I make it stop? I’d been on a diet for years and exercised intensively every day, and still couldn’t lose the tummy. My wake-up call came when I learned the truth: the way I was living, wasn’t a normal way to live. I was putting so much pressure on myself both physically and mentally, that I was stressed up to the eyeballs and my body couldn’t take it.
In fact, the way most of us live nowadays is not actually ‘normal’ as far as our bodies are concerned – we have so much to do and so little time that we stop tuning in to our bodies and simply ‘put up’ and assume that just because we feel more or less okay and nothing hurts, that everything IS okay. I see this with my clients every single day, and bloating is a huge red flag, even though most people see it as nothing more than annoying.
You see, the brain can’t tell the difference between a real or perceived danger, or even the difference between a physical danger (like an oncoming car) or a perceived danger (like the fear of not meeting a deadline). Every perceived danger sets off a biochemical chain of events in the body designed to keep you safe. You may know this as the fight or flight response, or the stress response.
When the brain perceives danger, its priority is to ensure you have enough energy and strength to allow you to fight or run away from danger, so it borrows blood and energy from anything that is not essential for this and sends it to the areas that are – like your arms, legs and brain.
Your digestive system is one of the first places to be ‘shut down’ by the stress response. In the ideal world, once the danger has passed, you would resume your normal calm activity, and the digestive system would resume its work.
But we don’t live in an ideal world. In today’s overstimulated, information-overloaded, fast-paced world, we’re constantly stressed. Stress causes the digestive system to become sluggish and function poorly, causing a whole host of problems, the most common of which include:
Poor Nutrient Extraction
The purpose of eating is to provide the body with energy and the necessary nutrients that ensure proper functioning of the organs and systems. If the gut is unable to extract and absorb these nutrients, the result is malnourishment (you may be getting adequate or excess calories, but the guts inability to extract nutrients means you suffer deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals). This further affects the functionality of the gut and promotes a vicious cycle with symptoms such as bloating progressively getting more frequent and extreme and eventually leading to disease.
Toxicity and Inflammation
If the gut can’t eliminate waste properly, the body becomes toxic and inflamed. This can lead to weight gain, joint pain, poor sleep, depression, weakened immune system, heart disease and cancer. A classic early-warning symptom of digestive tract inflammation is abdominal bloating.
Progressively Worse Gut Issues
If these responses are left undiagnosed or untreated, conditions will deteriorate further and could lead to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease such as Crohn’s Disease, food intolerances (= more bloating), leaky gut, weight gain, mental health issues, and hormonal imbalances (= even more bloating). It’s a dangerous cycle!
As bad as this all sounds, it’s not irreversible. All you need to do is to support your body in stimulating its natural self-healing capacity, and restoring its natural balance.
Here are my top 5 strategies for minimising and preventing bloating:
1. Calm Your Racing Thoughts
Stress is the major direct or indirect cause of bloating and most health issues. The best thing you can do is to calm your racing thoughts. Remind yourself that 99% of what you fear lives in your imagination, and you’re not actually in danger. Slow down the activity of your sympathetic nervous system (the “fight-or-flight” response) and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) by deliberately calming your thoughts. Try taking some deep breaths, meditating, rocking out to your favourite song, chatting to a friend or colleague, immersing yourself in a favourite hobby, or going for a little stroll around the block.
2. Eat Calmly and Slowly
Practice mindful eating – put aside your worries, step away from your work, put your phone down and remove yourself from any stressors or distractions. Start by taking a few deep breaths to communicate to your brain that everything is ok, and then put your focus on your meal. Enjoy every single bite. When is the last time you savoured your meal and felt grateful for the delicious foods you are eating, instead of wolfing it down as fast as possible so you could move on to the next thing? Eating quickly causes you to swallow more air, which builds up and contributes to bloating, so do yourself a favour and take your time when eating.
3. Move Regularly
Assist your digestive system (which includes the elimination of toxins) through frequent low-intensity movement such as walking. Prevent stagnation from occurring and allow essential nutrients to be transported efficiently throughout the body, ensuring you are nutritionally supported at the cellular level. Tip: go for a walk after you eat (especially after dinner) to help with digestion.
4. Listen To Your Body
This is the ultimate strategy. Your body talks to you all the time. Are you listening? I don’t mean, go running to the doctor every time your belly poofs out; but notice the symptoms you’re having (like bloating) and recognise that symptoms are the way your body is communicating with you. The mind and the body are inextricably connected: what you think, affects your body, and what your body does, affects what you think. This means, that most of your physical issues can be directly traced to the amount of stress you’re under from persistently thinking stressful thoughts!
6. Manage Stress
Get clear on what’s important to you, what you want in all areas of your life, and what makes you happy. This allows you to respond to the world in a completely different way. Once you know your priorities, you will naturally gravitate away from stress-inducing activities, people, obligations and even careers that don’t resonate with who you really are. Manage stress through exercise, meditation, and aligning your life with “who you really are.” Once your stress levels go down, your body will no longer be under a constant red alert and it will respond with increased health and vitality. And, you will feel like you actually have time to nurture yourself.
If you suffer from bloating, I urge you to look past the symptoms and get to the source of the problem. Try the tips I’ve outlined here. You’ll see that stress management and excellent self-care will improve your overall health, and minimise or even eliminate bloating.