You may have heard some people refer to the gut as our ‘second brain’. This is because the enteric nervous system relies on the same neurons and neurotransmitters found in the central nervous system.
If this is true, we need to start taking better care of our guts.
Studies over the last couple of decades have found links between gut health and the immune system, mood, mental health, autoimmune diseases, skin conditions, and cancer.
High-stress levels, too little sleep, processed and high-sugar foods, and antibiotics can all damage our gut microbiome (microorganisms living in our intestines.) While some microorganisms are harmful to our health, many are actually very beneficial.
Bloating, constipation and stomach issues are very common among younger people.
Bloating is typically caused by having a lot of gas in the gut, having problems with digestion (including constipation, food intolerance or irritable bowel syndrome) and periods. However, in some cases, it can be a sign of something more serious such as ovarian cancer.
According to lifestyle medicine physician Dr Alka Patel, if movement in the gut slows down, undigested food products build-up, and bacteria in your gut (your microbiota) attempt to break down the waste, resulting in fermentation which causes the build-up of gas.
‘This build-up is due to poor gut microflora diversity,’ explains Dr Patel.
‘Your gut flora has several functions, including the production of vitamins, digestion of fibre, and production of short-chain fatty acids like butyric acid that keep the colon integrated, improving transit time and supporting immune function.’
Signs of bloating include a ‘bigger’ or fuller feeling in our tummies, increased pain and farting more than usual.
This can all cause a lot of discomfort and pain, so improving our gut health as much as possible is crucial for a ‘healthier’ body.
But how do we actually improve gut health and reduce bloating?
Foods to eat
Courtney Black, Personal Trainer and Fitness Influencer, says that a diet high in fibre is essential for gut health.
‘Include lots of fruit and veg, whole grains and legumes,’ she says. ‘Try fermented foods with good, healthy bacteria. Certain foods contain good bacteria to help improve your belly and keep things running smoothly.
‘These include kefir, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, plain/low sugar yoghurt.
‘And add dark chocolate into your diet. Dark chocolate contains anti-inflammatory properties, which are great for a healthy gut. So adding a square or two of dark chocolate into your diet can be more helpful than you think.’
Other foods Courtney suggests to help bloating include:
- Green tea
- Peppermint tea
- Fatty fish
Camilla Gray, Nutritional Therapist at Optibac Probiotics, suggests taking probiotics.
‘Probiotics are designed to help keep your gut healthy by rebalancing the composition of your gut microbiome, keeping those good bacteria levels nice and high,’ she explains.
‘Probiotics can form a helpful protective barrier on the gut lining and protect you against bad bugs.
‘When you choose a probiotic supplement, make sure it contains strains that have been researched to help the condition you are trying to support.’
Foods to avoid
Avoiding inflammatory foods, such as gluten grains, sugar, damaged fats and artificial sweeteners will be beneficial in helping to reduce any bloating you may be experiencing.
Courtney suggests avoiding:
- Fatty foods
- Processed foods such as pizza, ready meals or sweets
However, she notes that these can all impact people differently, so if you are worried, you can get a test to determine any food intolerances you might have.
Avoid swallowing air by eating with your mouth closed. And also, remember to take your time when eating.
Eating slowly will allow your food to be digested properly, and the extra time allows the brain to register when you are full, which also helps reduce any bloating associated with overeating.
‘Stay hydrated,’ says Camilla. ‘Keeping hydrated (with water, not alcohol!) is essential for all aspects of health, including supporting our gut microbiome and immune system.
‘It helps to ensure that we are naturally flushing out toxins and helps our digestive system work better, reducing the risk of constipation which may cause bloat and even poor skin as a result.’
Having a glass of lemon water in the morning can also help create healthy stomach acid, which also helps reduce bloating.
Courtney also recommends limiting fizzy drinks, caffeine, and alcohol consumption.
‘Caffeine is directly linked to increasing our stress hormones, which can be detrimental to the gut if consumed in excessive amounts. Alcohol also irritates our bacterial balance when heavily consumed,’ she explains.
Focus on a good night’s sleep.
‘It is no secret that there is a direct link between your brain and gut health. Being constantly stressed, overtired and worried can cause havoc in your gut,’ Courtney says. ‘Aim for 7-8 hours sleep where possible and be sure to take some time for self–care and relaxation.’
But try not to go to bed or lie down on a full stomach, as you need to give your body time to digest.
Regular exercise helps to encourage healthy bowel movements and, in turn, a healthy gut, Courtney explains.
‘To get the benefits, we need regular, consistent exercise. I.e. 30/40 minutes at least four times a week,’ she says. ‘This can include HIIT, brisk walking, yoga, cycling, strength training.’
Specific exercises that can ease bloating/discomfort include yoga style exercises such as:
- Downward dog
- Bird dog
- Child’s pose
- Upward dog
- Deep breathing
Stress and anxiety also impact the gut, so meditation and yoga will reduce any bloating you may have and help with your mental health.
If your bloating remains a problem, speak with your local pharmacist or GP.