Why are we so bloated? A gastroenterologist explains why lockdown may have affected your gut

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Lockdown restrictions may have eased, but the bloating remains. An expert explains why we’ve all suffered with it over the past few months. 

Let’s be honest: a lot has changed over the past few months. Your working routine, your exercise regime, your eating habits. Your mindset has probably changed weekly, if not daily (and, for some, hourly). Even your body may have changed over the past few months: your back might be creakier from losing your ergonomic chair, for example. And even now lockdown is easing, things are still changing; your muscles might be sore from heading back to the gym, your head might hurt a little more now the pubs are open again. 

As I talk to all of my friends, they each have their individual complaints about the constant state of change we find our ways in. Some are, of course, more serious than others, but one thing we have all agreed on: not being able to shift the feeling of being bloated. 

Why do we get bloated?

This is tricky, as ‘bloating’ is hard to define and diagnose. Bloating itself is often a feeling, a sensation of fullness or as though things in our abdomen aren’t moving as they should. Often, bloating will portray itself as distention, where the abdomen is actually enlarged. “Feeling bloated and actually being bloated are two different things,” explains gastroenterologist Professor Dame Kumar from The Princess Grace Hospital.

Studies also show that subjective sensation of abdominal bloating and objective abdominal distention are different, but can both be considered in the diagnosis of bloating.

As for what’s actually going on inside? “There have been radiological studies that show that bloating is to do with having more gas in our stomachs,” she says. Studies show that some reasons for bloating can include impaired gas handling, gut hypersensitivity, and an altered gut microbes.

Gas can be to blame for bloating

There are lots of reasons why we bloat, from our reproductive system to our hormones, but to explain just a few reasons as to why lockdown may be making us feel it more than usual, we turned to expert gastroenterologist Professor Dame Kumar.

Mental health

“Usually, our minds would normally be occupied with other things, whereas now many they are at home with not a lot of distractions,” adds Professor Kumar. This extra time for introspection can result in over analysing or noticing much more subtle changes that would previously have gone unnoticed or be less significant in our lives. Tip one: try to stop scrutinising your body so much, and show yourself some compassion. 

There’s other mental health considerations to take in to account, too. For many, anxiety levels have been high since coronavirus first hit the UK. With the easing of restrictions, it’s not getting any easier for most of us either. According to Anxiety UK, lifting or easing of coronavirus restrictions had led to an increase in their anxiety for almost 67% of people.

This anxiety is a huge trigger for our gut: “your bloating may feel worse when you have anxiety because you tend to swallow more air when you’re anxious,” explains Professor Kumar. This is because, when we are stressed, our breath is often the first thing to go. Holding your breath and not dispelling the air, or breathing too quickly, such as during a panic attack, can all be factors.

Anxiety and stress can also leave the stomach lining inflamed and uncomfortable, which could also manifest as bloating. Though it’s easier than it sounds right now, taking steps to reduce anxiety might help reduce physical discomfort. Talking to a professional about it is also crucial. 

Gassy foods

Of course, food can be to blame too. “Certain foods ferment and release gas in your stomach, which will lead to bloating,” explains Professor Dame Kumar. “That’s true for beans and a lot of leafy greens.”

If you have used this time to raid your tin cupboard, eating up all your stores of chickpeas, that might explain your bloated stomach. So will those who have been upping their vegetable intake, perhaps to increase their vitamin intake or boost immunity.

You might be surprised that Professor Kumar isn’t laying the blame on the comfort food we have been turning to during this time. After all, how often do you hear people complain about bloating when they have eaten something hearty? “People do say that they feel bloated after those foods, but what they probably mean is just that they are overfull. High-fat meals stay in the stomach longer, delaying the emptying of the food,” explains Professor Kumar.

Kale and chickpeas
Some foods can impact bloating

Eating quickly is also a big bloating trigger, says Professor Kumar. She explains that if we don’t chew food properly it puts more stress on the digestive system and also means that we, again, swallow more air, leading to bloating. 

Those with digestive issues should know what trigger foods to avoid, but if you are worried about allergies or conditions such as IBS, make sure you talk to your GP. 

Exercise and movement

Exercise can help with bloating in both the short term and long term. Immediately, it encourages food and gas to move through the gastrointestinal tract. But exercise will also strengthen the abdominal muscles that help gas move through the digestive system, meaning that sustained exercise can reduce the risk of bloating.

Our lower levels of activity during lockdown might be to blame, then. Luckily, there’s an easy option for that: implement some more movement into your day, particularly walks after meals, and see if you notice a difference. 

If you are worried about your bloating, make sure that you talk to your GP, especially if you are concerned that it may be related to your mental or physical health. 

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