I used to get bloated all the time. A specialist told me it was IBS. At the time, treatment for IBS was a low fibre diet, including white bread, and that made it worse. Then the treatment changed to a low fructose diet, which pretty much means you can’t eat most vegetables or fruits, gluten or dairy, onions or garlic or anything with the letter a – z in it. So even I, #dietqueen did not try that one.
The symptoms were crippling though. My mum would say “just wear baggy clothes”. She totally didn’t get it. The pregnant look was the least of my worries, it hurt and gave me gas but worst of all, it seriously killed my mood. I would go into a major depressive episode, I didn’t want to get off the couch, I had no motivation for anything, I didn’t want to eat for fear it would make it worse, I couldn’t exercise because it was uncomfortable and I was just simply sick of it.
A few times the thought popped into my head that I need to stop dieting, and something that stopped me from trying intuitive eating was that I was convinced I had every food intolerance under the sun. ‘So maybe I need to go paleo’ I’d think as I stock piled avocado, sweet potato and pork belly. ‘Oh look, that girl is a raw vegan and cured her IBS’ I thought, as I bought 19kgs of watermelon for tomorrow’s breakfast. Nothing worked. One day bananas made me bloated, the next it was water. There was no pattern and I could never guess what would set it off.
Meanwhile, my life spiralled out of control with the gym/dieting and it soon emerged that I had to quit dieting or I’d lose everything I loved. So I focused on that and figured I’d just have to deal with bloating for now. My psychologist kept questioning my so-called intolerances, ‘but have you ever had them actually diagnosed?’ No, I’d answer, but I’d spent about 50% of my life reading nutritional articles and watching youtube videos, so I was basically a dietitian and anyway, mainstream nutrition doesn’t recognise that everyone is intolerant to basically everything since agriculture, right? (Hmm). She challenged this, and suggested if my symptoms persisted we’d organise to see a dietitian.
But here’s the thing.. once I stopped dieting my bloating basically stopped! I couldn’t believe it. Dieting was causing the bloat? How was that possible? (Well, let’s just remember that firstly, just because something occurs at the same time as something else, it doesn’t mean that one of them caused the other. Similarly, just because something stops at the same time something else stops, it doesn’t mean one made the other stop too, but that’s a science conversation for another time.)
But I looked into it. STRESS is a major disruptor to digestive processes. The University of Nottingham, UK, conducted a study where corticotrophin releasing hormone (which is part of the stress response) was intentionally increased in subjects in two different ways, in both instances the small bowel was constricted which increased the sensation of stomach distention and bloating. They suggest that stress causes water to move from the small bowel to the ascending colon, which is what causes the feeling of bloat.
When stress kicks in, a whole lot of mechanisms in the body prepare you for ‘fight-or-flight’ and one of these is to decrease blood flow to the digestive system – there’s no point digesting dinner if you get eaten by a bear! Not only does our digestive system stop when fight-or-flight kicks in but cortisol, which is released as a part of the stress response to decrease inflammation and calm down the fight-or-flight response, actually has an impact on the way we digest food, as well as our gut bacteria!
It’s also been found that stress management has had a positive effect on symptoms of IBS. A study conducted by Yasuj University of Medical Sciences in Iran found that cognitive behavioural stress treatment combined with typical treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (medication) was significantly more effective at reducing symptoms than the medication alone
I can’t tell you the number of people who struggle with bloating. And I’m not a nutritionist, dietitian or GP, so I’m not going to tell you what is causing it (and really, it will be different for everyone). But I will tell you this, your diet brain wants you to think that it’s what you’re eating, that there’s some culprit in your food that is causing that bloat. And it may be the case. But similarly, it may not be. I’m all for trying different things, but I’m not down with self-diagnosing digestive disorders and changing your diet in the name of such a disorder. If you struggle with bloating, see a specialist and get it properly diagnosed. If nothing comes up, it could be stress.
My top tips to reduce stress? Stop dieting, start meditating, practice yoga and walking in nature, and lie on your back for 5 minutes every day breathing into your belly. Decrease your stress levels and see if that helps.
Struggle with bloating? Comment below and share your story. If you have any questions you can always email me firstname.lastname@example.org, or attend one of my workshops or retreats. If you find yourself struggling with intuitive eating or quitting dieting, I offer coaching and more info can be found (here).
 Pritchard, S.E., Garsed, K.C., Hoad, C.L……& Spiller, R.C. (2015). Effect of experimental stress on the small bowel and colon in healthy humans. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 27, 542-549.
 McCormick, C.M. Practicing safe stress: A selective overview of the neuroscience research. In H.Cohen & B.Stemmer (Eds.). Consciousness and Cognitition. (2007). Elsevier Science: London, UK.
 Kamkar, A., Glolzary, M., Farrokhi, NA.A., & Aghaee, S.H. (2011). The Effectiveness of Cognitive-Behavioural stress management on symptoms of patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Armaghane Danesh Bimonthly Journal, 16(4), 300-310.