In my previous blog post on bloating, I discussed how the way that you eat might be able to reduce bloating symptoms. Maybe this came as a surprise – the focus tends not to be on how you eat but on what you eat. Of course, what you eat is important too and I’ll discuss this in a later post in this series. Today’s post, however, is about how factors in our lifestyle can affect the digestive process and therefore can contribute to bloating.
Getting enough sleep
In the last post, I explained that there are two states our nervous system can be in: “fight or flight” and “rest and digest”. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that in order to digest our food optimally, we need to be in rest and digest mode! Eating when you are relaxed and making sure you but can have a big impact!
Emotional stress is not the only thing that puts us into the fight or flight response; lack of sleep does the same thing. Even a modest amount of sleep deprivation encourages the fight or flight mode to dominate, leading to impaired digestion which can cause bloating. Chronic sleep deprivation is at epidemic levels in modern Western societies, so think carefully about whether this could be you! I know that getting enough sleep can be difficult for many. The sleep scientist Dr Matthew Walker recommends that we allow ourselves a “sleep opportunity” of at least 8 hours per night and keep regular times of going to bed and getting up, even at weekends(1).
Exercise can be a double-edged sword when it comes to bloating. Sometimes bloating occurs as a result of slow transit constipation. This means that for some people, it takes longer than normal for food to travel through the intestinal tract. As a result, more water is absorbed into the intestines, which can in turn lead to bloating. Moderate exercise encourages the muscles lining the intestinal tract to contract, moving food through the intestines by peristalsis. Keeping moderately active keeps things moving!
On the other hand, over-training or doing exercise which is too strenuous puts the body into the stress response. If you are doing strenuous aerobic exercise and find you need to breath through your mouth to get enough oxygen around your body, you may also swallow air in the process. Most of this builds up as gas in the intestines. If you find that this is the case for you, you could try switching to gentler forms of exercise such as brisk walking or yoga. Alternatively, try experimenting with what you eat before a workout, choosing foods that are quicker to digest if you frequently experience bloating post-exercise.
Not only can chronic constipation be uncomfortable and even painful, but bloating often accompanies it. Whilst there can be more complex reasons behind constipation, it is always worth checking first that you have addressed the three most common causes:
- inadequate hydration (aim for 1.5 – 2 litres of water per day and remember that tea and coffee don’t count towards this)
- insufficient fibre (from whole grains, pulses, fruit and vegetables)
- being sedentary.
- Remember to eat while you are relaxed, and spend at least 10-15 minutes every day deliberately switching out of the stress response.
- Give yourself a non-negotiable “sleep opportunity” of 8 hours every night, at a regular time.
- Keep moving, but if you find that your bloating is worse after exercise, slow it down or change what you eat before a workout.
- Make sure you drink 1.5-2 litres of water per day and eat plenty of fibre to avoid constipation.
In the 3rd post in this series we’ll look at specific foods that are common culprits when it comes to bloating.
- Walker, M. (2018). Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams. New York: Scribner.