The vast majority of us have experienced bloating at some point in our lives, where the stomach feels like an inflated balloon that you think is going to pop. It can be particularly common after eating and, therefore, to understand why it happens and to stop recurring bloating, it is important to understand how the digestive system works. Very often the cause, or one of the main causes, of bloating is faulty digestion.
Start of the process
Before we have even started eating and drinking, just thinking about food and smelling it, can get the salivary glands (and digestive enzymes) in your mouth going and can start stimulating stomach acid and enzymes in the gut ready for what’s coming. So, digestion starts just with the senses of sight and smell, which alert the body as to the kind of food we are about to eat.
The teeth then continue the digestive process by breaking the food down and mixing it with the enzymes in the mouth (particularly the enzyme ptyalin, which begins the breakdown of starch). This is why chewing each small mouthful at least 30 times (or, even better, chewing each mouthful so thoroughly that it the contents become liquified before swallowing) is recommended.
Food then passes down the oesophagus to the stomach, where the digestion of starch continues. As the food sits at the top of the stomach, starchy foods continue to be digested by enzymes within the food itself, along with the salivary enzymes.
Protein-rich foods (for example, meat, fish and dairy products) require a different environment for digestion than carbohydrate foods (for example, bread, pasta and potatoes). Eating proteins together with carbohydrates can compromise efficient digestion, leading to symptoms of wind and bloating. If you are experiencing bloating after eating, try separating the two.
When the digestive system is working as it should, when protein foods are eaten and the food progresses to the lower part of the stomach, hydrochloric acid is then produced, which works to digest the protein content of the food. This is then released into the small intestine.
In this area of the small intestine, the liver uses bile (which is stored in the gall bladder) to continue the specialised digestion of fats. The small intestine also has the important job of absorbing the nutrients from foods. It extracts nutrients through small tube-like ‘fingers’ called villi on the inside of the intestinal wall. It is crucial that these are free of deposits, so that the nutrients can be fully absorbed. It is at this part of the process that the efficiency of the body’s digestion is tested. If the small intestine is not working efficiently, it is immaterial how good the quality of the food being eaten is , as well as how well it is chewed, because the body will not be able to make use of it.
When digestion goes wrong
Each of the steps, described above, are what happens in an efficient digestive process when each part is straight forward, and prepares food for the next stage which is automatically signalled. However, it is possible that these signals can be overridden. For example, if meals are taken too frequently, each successive stage takes place too early. One result is that nutrients are not fully extracted, and another is that there is a gradual build-up of slimy deposits which result from fermentation.
Fermentation, putrefaction and bloating
Poor digestion is a primary cause of wind and bloating. This is because, when the digestive process is impaired for whatever reason, gases are produced in the intestines as a result of either putrefaction or fermentation.
Putrefaction is an unpleasant process that is similar to rotting. It occurs when there is stagnant material in the digestive tract as a result of slow transit (e.g. as a result of constipation). It produces highly toxic chemicals and can also produce sulphur dioxide and other foul-smelling gases.
Fermentation occurs when there is only partial digestion of food and the various yeasts and other ferments that it contains sit breaking down in the gut. This process also produces large amounts of gas, as sugars are changed into alcohol, acetaldehyde, methane and other chemicals.
Enzymes, friendly bacteria and the digestive system
So, we have seen that poor digestion can lead to wind and bloating. By the same token, keeping the digestive system working at its best can help to avoid bloating. Both digestive enzymes and friendly bacteria play a central role in healthy digestion.
Not only do natural digestive enzymes from foods support their complete breakdown, these beneficial enzymes also pass through the small intestine, where they reduce the potential for fermentation and help to create optimum conditions in which nutrients can be assimilated. More than half then reach the colon, where they help to combat putrefaction (and where they are able to alter the intestinal flora by binding with free radicals).
By choosing enzyme-rich (living) foods, or opting for a digestive enzymes supplement – particularly for those people who for various reasons can no longer make digestive enzymes – the complex enzyme systems of the rest of the body do not have to be diverted to the task of digestion, the digestive process can remain efficient and the chances of bloating are reduced.
There are twenty times as many bacteria as living cells and having the right bacteria in your digestive tract is vital for healthy digestion and therefore beating the bloat!
More than 80% of cases of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) are thought to be associated with a condition referred to as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). While it is normal to have high levels of bacteria in the gut, clearly not all bacteria are good for you.
Just as is the case anywhere else in the body, harmful micro-organisms (including bacteria, parasites, fungi and yeasts) in the digestive tract can cause infection directly, or produce toxic substances that contribute to inflammation or disease (particularly of the digestive tract). The so-called good bacteria have two principal families – Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria – and their job is to keep the “bad guys” in check and under control, by competing with them for space and food.
If we are unable to maintain a healthy balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, and the bad bacteria are allowed to flourish and spread, a range of unpleasant symptoms can result. These include bloating, along with diarrhoea, constipation and excess wind.
So, love your gut and stop bloating by promoting healthy digestion. A diet packed with enzyme-rich living foods, whole foods high in dietary fibre and antioxidants, fermented foods that contain probiotics and a broad spectrum of nutrients will help you to beat that bloat! And you can support your digestion with high quality digestion supplements as required.