Ask The Doctor: Bloating, Gas, and Abdominal Discomfort

Every time I eat a full meal, I get bloated and uncomfortable. How come? What can I do to ease these feelings and prevent them in the future?
By Nancy Lonsdorf, MD, an Iowa-based integrative physician with 23 years’ experience in ayurveda for women’s health.

Bloating, gas, and abdominal discomfort are common yet annoying symptoms of a digestive system that has fallen off track. Weak digestion, slow-working intestines, and imbalanced flora (bacteria, yeast, and other intestinal microorganisms) can all cause post-meal pain and protruding bellies.
Bloating can, but doesn’t always, involve excess gas. Gas is formed as the bacteria that normally live in our intestines (mainly the colon) metabolize food: The more food that goes in, the more gas created. While some gas is normal—up to 1.9 liters and 14 to 23 gas passages per day—excess gas forms when you don’t digest your food well enough. Consistent gas or bloating can also stem from a lack of beneficial bacteria in the colon. In proper supply, these bacteria form acids that help digestion.
Here are several natural ways to crack your digestive problems and stop post-meal sufferfests before they start.

Phase out felonious foods
Red meat, fruit, corn, potatoes, beans, and cabbage-family vegetables contain natural compounds that are hard for many to digest and therefore cause gas, bloating, and indigestion. Same goes for soy, wheat, gluten, dairy, refined flours and sugar, and sorbitol (a common sweetener in gum, diet foods, and breath mints). To identify intolerances to these or other foods and ingredients, eliminate suspected culprits from your diet one by one over several weeks to see if symptoms subside. If you have no idea which foods cause trouble, cut out all of these for one month. Once symptoms improve, reintroduce eliminated foods slowly, one at a time, to see which create gas or bloating.

Pump probiotics and introduce enzymes
To resupply your healthy colonic bacteria, reach for probiotic drinks and foods, such as yogurt, lassi, kefir, and kombucha, daily. Also take a potent probiotic supplement. Look for brands containing verified amounts of active bacteria and multiple strains of Lacto and Bifido bacteria for best results. Take two 250 mg capsules twice daily for two months.

Digestive enzymes are special proteins the body makes to help break down fat, carbs, and protein. Taking supplemental enzymes with meals may improve digestion and temper bloating, but be careful: Chronic use can foster dependency by suppressing the body’s own enzyme production. If needed, take protease, lipase, amylase, or alpha-galactosidase digestive enzymes after meals for four to six weeks or until digestion improves.

Supplement with herbs
To improve digestion, try an herbal formula containing ingredients such as amalaki (Indian gooseberry) to help balance stomach acid, ginger to promote growth of good bacteria, licorice to temper hyperacidity, fennel to ease discomfort from gas, cumin and black pepper to increase bile action, and hing (asafetida) to reduce gas.

To alleviate bloating and discomfort, take one or two capsules or a pinch of hingvastak churna after lunch and dinner. This is a classic combination of herbs, including hing, which improves downward flow of gas and food through the intestines and stimulates better digestion.

Still hurt?
Although bloating is a common and oftentimes curable problem, severe pain, changes in bowel habits, black or bloody stools, unintended weight loss, or loss of appetite may warrant a trip to your healthcare practitioner. An expert can rule out infection, inflammatory bowel disease, or colon or ovarian cancer.

The Ayurvedic Approach
Ayurveda, an ancient system of natural medicine and yoga’s “sister science,” considers optimal digestion the key to good health and long life. Ayurvedically speaking, gas and bloating signal weak digestive “fire,” or agni, and imbalanced vata, which guides all movement and flow in the body. Digestion works best at warm temperatures and in settled environments, so cooked, warm, freshly prepared, and correctly spiced foods, eaten on a regular schedule with a calm mind and body, are the ayurvedic solutions to most digestive ills.

To balance vata and strengthen digestion
* Avoid carbonated beverages. * Drink plain, hot water throughout the day to aid flow through the gut.
* Avoid dry, crunchy foods and raw vegetables. * Cook with ground fennel and cumin seeds, or chew roasted fennel seeds after and between meals. * Eat slowly and chew food well: Digestion and enzymatic action begin in the mouth. * Eat your main meal at noon and have a lighter evening meal, ideally vegetarian. * Don’t drink milk with meals. If at all, drink milk warm after boiling it with turmeric and ginger. * Sit quietly for five to 10 minutes after eating, then take a 15- to 20-minute walk to stimulate digestion. * Drink peppermint tea or a tea of ¼ teaspoon fennel seeds steeped in boiling water after meals. * Practice yoga to mechanically stimulate downward flow of gas and food through the intestines. Try Roll and Bicycle Poses for immediate relief and Cobra and Locust to strengthen digestion.