Bloating is a condition where the abdomen feels full and tight, and it is usually caused by excess gas. Or as I refer to it, Michelin Man Syndrome. It is a very common ailment that is experienced by 1 out of 7 adults every single week. It is also much more common in women than men. Many people just assume it’s nothing to be concerned with and generally, that is true. But if you experience bloating more than just occasionally, it might be an indication that there is a bigger issue. Let’s dive a little deeper.
Abdominal bloating occurs when the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is filled with air or gas. Most people describe bloating as feeling full, tight or swollen in the abdomen. Your abdomen may also be distended, hard and painful. Bloating is often accompanied by pain, excessive gas (flatulence), frequent burping or belching and abdominal rumbling, known as borborygmus.
There are many causes of abdominal bloating, including gas, fluid retention, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), food intolerances, menstruation and infections. Factors contributing to these causes include eating certain foods, like carbonated beverages, dairy, beans, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage, swallowing air while eating, infections like Lyme disease or E. coli, excessive alcohol consumption, certain medications, bacterial overgrowth, candida overgrowth, hormonal fluctuations, food related allergies, mold exposure, digestive tract inflammation and nervous system dysregulation. So what can be done?
Because bloating is not viewed as a disorder by itself, not much serious research has been done to show what types of treatments work best to get rid of bloating and many people do not seek medical help for bloating, trying to manage it on their own with over the counter medications that promise relief from gas, pain and acid reflux. Antacids only help with the kind of bloating that is caused by food. When a person does ask their primary care doctor or even a gastroenterologist for help with bloating, they may find that the treatment options are very limited. Doctors will usually reassure patients that gas and bloating, while uncomfortable, are not actually dangerous. Then, they will often advise that patients go on a strict elimination diet, cutting out wheat, dairy and most vegetables and legumes. Sometimes doctors will prescribe antibiotics to alter the balance of gut bacteria. Antidepressants are sometimes prescribed off label to help with bloating too. Conventional medical science still has a ways to go to fully understand the underlying causes of digestive problems like bloating.
According to East Asian Medicine (EAM), the causes of chronic bloating are linked to an imbalance of qi in the stomach, spleen and liver. To put it simply, when the vital energy is not in balance, it signifies a deficiency somewhere in the body. In fact, a study out of the Department of Gastroenterology at the First Affiliated Hospital of Dalian Medical University in Liaoning Province found that imbalances in the liver and spleen were present in patients who were diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Though the exact cause of IBS is not well known, those who suffer from IBS often list chronic bloating as one of the more common symptoms.
Another possible cause is an excess of yin, or coldness, in the stomach. Those with cold stomach syndrome often have dull pain in their upper abdominal or epigastric region. This coldness may be due to slow energy metabolism, poor circulation or an overindulgence of cold foods. When it comes to the causes of digestive imbalances, deficiencies or coldness, there can be many different factors. Anything from overeating, stress, skipping meals, eating cold foods and overexertion are all considered possible causes.
But this is one of the places where EAM excels over allopathic medicine. The goal of EAM is always to understand and identify the root cause of the bloating in an effort to prevent chronic bloating altogether. Acupuncture, herbs and abdominal massage can all be helpful in the treatment of bloat.
Acupuncture will work with the nervous, endocrine and immune systems to regulate the body’s internal organs by improving circulation, decreasing inflammation and boosting immunity. Acupuncture treatments will bring the stomach and liver back into harmonious function, clearing phlegm and improving digestion. Any underlying issues like depression, anxiety or hormonal imbalances can also be addressed with acupuncture.
There are many single herbs, as well as herbal formulas that can aid in relieving symptoms of bloat. Peppermint, chaste berries and ginger are all great, side effect free remedies for dealing with bloating. Peppermint relaxes the muscles of the digestive tract making it easier for gas and food to pass. Chaste berries are particularly helpful for women who experience bloating during menstruation. And sipping on ginger tea or ginger water will provide beneficial enzymes that aid in digestion and gut function.
Herbal formulas should be customized to the patient, but there is one ancient concoction that is used worldwide, Bao He Wan. It helps treat the side effects of digestive stagnation, also known as fullness, distention of the stomach and other stomach-related gyrations from overindulgence. In essence, the herbs help your stomach feel less full and help keep digestion moving.
Utilizing acupressure with a DIY abdominal massage is another great way to address bloating. Lie down on your back on your couch or bed. Put your hands, one on top of the other, right above your right hip bone. Move in a circular motion up the rib cage, then over to the left rib cage and down to the other hip bone. Continue rubbing in a circular motion for about 10 minutes and you should notice the bloating get much better.
There are also other things that can help prevent bloating from happening. These things are specific to the foods you eat and when you eat them. First, choose foods in harmony with the season. Raw foods are appropriate in the summer, but in the winter, it’s better to eat cooked foods.
Avoid icy cold drinks and foods. Cold liquids are shocking and unfriendly to your internal organs, both those of the digestive tract and the reproductive organs. Constantly drinking ice-cold beverages irritates the smooth muscle tissues of the stomach, intestines and uterus. Drink more warm liquids, which are soothing to these organs.
Eat better and pay attention to your eating habits. Skip carbonated, yeasty beverages like soda and beer. Don’t overeat because this can overload your spleen and stomach. Incorporate more bitter foods, like orange peel, chamomile and kale into your diet. These help move the qi downwards and reinvigorate your digestive system, while also helping to balance the liver and kidneys. Limit starchy foods that are hard to digest like potatoes, bread and noodles.
Eating properly is also essential. Chew your food thoroughly. Many people eat fast and don’t pay much attention to chewing their food sufficiently before they swallow. Food is really meant to be broken down and mixed with saliva in the mouth before it moves down the esophagus and into the stomach. Skipping this important step by swallowing half chewed food means that your stomach has to produce more acid and work much harder to digest the food before it moves deeper into your gastrointestinal tract. Eating too quickly can also easily lead to eating more than you need. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to receive the message that the stomach is full. Chew slowly and enjoy every bite. This will improve your digestion and help prevent bloating.
Lastly, work with a functional medicine doctor or an integrative doctor to rule out anything serious like Lyme disease, candida overgrowth, mold exposure, etc. Diagnosing these conditions is out of the scope of practice for acupuncturists and requires some in depth testing. But if any of these are diagnosed, EAM can help alleviate the symptoms and provide a better quality of life.