Bloating is commonly caused by excess wind, which the gut produces when it struggles to break down certain foods. Beans, onions, broccoli and cauliflower, are just some of the foods the body can have trouble digesting, resulting in bloating. Eating too much, drinking fizzy drinks and eating spicy food are other bloating triggers, but if bloating becomes a regular occurrence, it could be due to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is one of the most prevalent gastrointestinal disorders, thought to affect up to 20 per cent of the population.
The fact that its incidence has increased over recent decades provides a clue that certain factors in our modern lifestyles may be triggering or exacerbating the condition.
Below are seven things you might not realise could be making your bowel irritable, according to nutritional therapist at Bio-Kult Hannah Braye.
Not drinking enough water
Staying well hydrated throughout the day is important to help soften stools and make them easy to pass, said Hannah. Those suffering with constipation type IBS (IBS-C) often find an improvement in symptoms by increasing their water intake.
She added: “It’s also important that IBS diarrhoea (IBS-D) sufferers drink enough to replenish water lost from episodes of diarrhoea. Aim to drink around 2 litres of water a day. This can include herbal teas.”
Drinking too much caffeine
Many people rely on caffeine from coffee, tea, sports drinks, cola and even green tea to give them a kick start in the morning and see them through the day.
While antioxidants in good quality coffee and tea can offer some benefits to the gut (increasing beneficial bacteria levels), too much caffeine has a stimulant effect, triggering the fight or flight response and the release of stress hormones, said Hannah.
“This is likely to have a negative impact on IBS symptoms and many sufferers (especially those who suffer with IBS-D) see an improvement in symptoms when they cut caffeine out,” she advised.
Holding on to stress
Stress and IBS go hand in hand, with many sufferers noticing an exacerbation of symptoms in times of stress, and also IBS symptoms being a source of stress in themselves, according to Hannah.
She explained: “Research is increasingly showing that IBS may in fact be a combination of irritable bowel and irritable brain, with the two being intrinsically linked via the ‘gut-brain axis’. It’s perhaps unsurprising therefore that interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy and mediation, which help to build resilience to stress, are showing significant benefits in studies in IBS patients.”
Dysbiosis is a term used to describe an imbalance of microorganisms (eg. bacteria, yeasts and parasites) within the gut. Low levels of beneficial bacteria can result from poor diet and lifestyle, antibiotic use and stress, said Hannah.
She added: “Dysbiosis has been observed in over 70 per cent of IBS sufferers and numerous studies have found that live bacteria supplements can be beneficial in the condition. In fact, the largest-ever study on the use of live bacteria supplements in IBS ever conducted, found that Bio-Kult Advanced Multi-Strain Formulation significantly decreased abdominal pain and improved quality of life in those with IBS-D, with one third (33 per cent) of participants having a complete resolution of symptoms after 4 months of supplementation.”
Not cooking from scratch
Evidence suggests that many preservatives and dietary emulsifiers (eg. polysorbate and carboxymethylocellulose) used in processed foods and ready meals, have a negative impact on the balance of bacteria in our gut and can have a pro-inflammatory effect.
Hannah recommended: “By eating meals cooked from fresh wholefood ingredients you can significantly reduce the intake of undesirable additives, and reduce their deleterious effect on the gut.”
Many IBS sufferers report a worsening of IBS symptoms the day after a big night out.
Hannah explained: “Alcohol is known to affect digestive tract motility, absorption, and permeability. It is also often high in sugar, providing a potential food source for pathogenic microorganisms in the gut. The negative effect observed in studies is associated with binge-drinking (over 4 drinks in a day), so it’s best to keep alcohol consumption low to moderate, and have at least a couple of evenings a week alcohol free.”
Eating ‘grab and go’
Digestion starts in the brain (the ‘cephalic’ stage) as we anticipate eating. It is this anticipation which stimulates digestive secretions such as stomach acid, digestive enzymes and bile, which help to breakdown and digest our food, according to Hannah.
If in low supply, our guts have to work twice as hard to do their job, which can lead to food fermenting in the gut, producing gas and contributing to symptoms such as bloating, reflux, constipation or loose stools.
Hannah said: “Convenience foods, where we just grab and go, side-step the cephalic stage of digestion. Whilst it may not be possible to cook every single meal from scratch yourself just before eating, make sure to take time over meals, think about it beforehand, and focus on what you are eating away from distractions such as computers, TVs and phones, to allow your gut time to catch up with your brain.”
In some cases, issues with the gut could be linked with more serious health conditions like Crohn’s disease – a condition Emmerdale actor Jeff Hordley has.