Is stress making you bloatedGiving up prawns. Eating charcoal. For four years, Martha tried everything to banish her bloat. Then she realised the problem wasn't in her tummy but in her mind…
01:02 GMT, 16 July 2012
Simply slim: Martha Alexander
To be offered a seat by a handsome man on a train is always nice — except when it’s because he thinks you’re pregnant when you’re not.
The first time it happened I smiled politely and explained, to his mortification, that I wasn’t expecting. Nowadays I just take the seat — it’s less embarrassing for all concerned.
It’s something that happens to me more than it should. I’m a toned size 12, and at 5ft 9in tall I weigh 9st 8lbs — but, as often as twice a week, my stomach mysteriously swells up like a beach ball.
My mid-section pops out and remains bulbous for a couple of days before shrinking to its normal state. I, like one in five of the female population, suffer from bloating. I can make light of it most of the time — it’s not as if my symptoms are life- threatening but, like many women, I find bloating both exhausting and demoralising.
It’s annoying to be so inflated that I can’t even bend over to do up my shoelaces. It’s irritating to have to dress to conceal; I consistently buy clothes that are a couple of sizes too big, preferring to waft around in a teepee than endure straining buttons or other people’s judgement.
Body-con dresses and sexy pencil skirts are out — I have one tight-fitting dress that I can only wear as a last-minute decision depending on how distended I look and I’ll always take a billowing cardigan or boyfriend blazer to wear over the top just in case.
I cycle more than eight miles every day and run at least four miles
four times a week, as I’m training for the Great North Run. In short,
it’s frustrating to have the body you deserve for only some of the time:
muscly legs topped off with a stomach like Robbie Coltrane’s after
Christmas lunch isn’t an aspirational look for women.
The worst thing is how it makes me feel — fat and sluggish.
perception of myself becomes negative and warped: I believe I’m the
size of a planet, and start to think that other parts of my body — my
face and arms — also look fat. When the bloat has gone, everything feels
perfectly OK again.
While my boyfriend doesn’t care about the
aesthetics of my tummy, he does care about how it makes me behave.
Instead of ‘does my bum look big in this’ he is driven insane with
questions like: ‘If you saw me and didn’t know me, would you think
paunch or pregnant’ And I’m sick of asking them.
become a minefield, too — I find picky eaters intensely annoying, so
becoming one has been galling. Analysing what I’ve eaten to make links
with the state of my stomach is not only exhausting but boring. Food is
to be enjoyed, not obsessed over.
The first time my stomach
swelled, four years ago, I put it down to having eaten too much at a
party. But after repeatedly experiencing this gurgling, acidic bloat
that makes my stomach go taut like a drum, I had to get some answers.
So I visited several alternative and conventional therapists to ask their advice. Here’s what they told me…
JO FORD, nutritional health consultant.
Expecting Martha Alexander during a time of extreme bloating
I assumed what was going into my stomach was causing my bloating, so
food intolerances were the first thing I got checked.
There are various
ways this can be done — blood testing, hair-strand testing and Vega
testing (said to measure the body’s electrical resistance to foods).
went for hair testing at one of Jo Ford’s clinics. Jo claims the
mineral content of a single strand of hair can indicate signs of fungus,
parasites, chemical and metal toxins, hormonal imbalance, food
intolerance and mineral deficiencies.
How it works:
I sent off a sample of my hair to be tested (including the follicle —
so I had to pluck, rather than cut, the strands), and filled out
questionnaires and food diaries. After ten days, the results came back
saying I had an overgrowth of the yeast Candida in my intestine, caused
by any of the following: antibiotics, metal toxicity, excessive
consumption of sugar or low immunity.
The report explained how Candida grew
opportunistically in the lining of the gut, releasing toxins into the
bloodstream. I was advised to cut out wheat, dairy, frozen prawns, raw
tomatoes, wine, fruit and tap water. All sugars (including fruit) were
out for the first six weeks, as Candida feeds on sugar.
COST: 45 (flowfood4health.com).
VERDICT: I lived on little more than white meat, brown rice and vegetables for more than a year.
start of the diet was hell: I felt weak, sick and sad. However, after a
month I did feel better and the bloating was less frequent — but not
extinct and just as difficult to pre-empt. Eating like this was so
joyless it simply wasn’t sustainable, and I was driving my friends mad.
Investigations since have shown no
evidence of a Candida overgrowth. Gastroenterologists say the only time
Candida multiplies in your gut is when your immune system is totally
shot to pieces.
Caroline Harper, homeopath.
THE THERAPY: This uses tiny amounts of natural plant extracts as remedies.
it works: ‘I can’t offer a quick fix,’ warned Caroline, who went on to
ask me about when my symptoms began and what I was eating at the time.
We talked a lot about stress. She prescribed Carbo vegetabilis, a
vegetable charcoal used on patients who have weak digestion, bloating,
and distention. Patients often feel cold and are greedy for sweet and
salty food, which I am.
COST: Initial consultation 65, follow-up 45. Carbo vegetabilis (two pills a day for four weeks) 5 (harperhomeopathy.com).
VERDICT: I want to believe these little pills and this gentle, natural approach will work — but I don’t see a difference.
Caroline Skirrow, nutritional therapist
THE THERAPY: Nutritional therapy aims to inform patients how diet affects health, and to advise which foods will help improve it.
How it works:
I complete a food diary detailing exactly what I ate, at what times
over three days, and wait for the announcement that I’m allergic to
wheat — isn’t that the one everyone says is responsible for bloating
But it doesn’t come.
ALL BLOWN UP
Severe bloating can increase a woman's waist circumference by up to 12cm over the course of just one day
‘Often it’s just the overall quality of your diet — for example, whether food is processed or fresh — rather than specific ingredients that cause bloating,’ said Caroline. The times we eat, skipping meals and the gut environment all play a part, too.
We revisited my childhood, a period marked by eczema eased by goat’s milk; then on to teenage tonsillitis.
She brought out the Bristol Stool Chart — a diagnostic tool for bowel movements — and I identified mine as if they were Farrow & Ball paint swatches. Caroline recommended more vegetables, wholegrain and protein with every meal. Like the homeopath, she also suggested stress as a trigger for my bloating, describing how the body needs to be relaxed to digest properly.
THE COST: From 90 for a consultation (thefoodfixer.com).
MY VERDICT: I liked Caroline’s efficiency in questioning every aspect of my health. She was also keen on liaising with my GP, which was comforting. Her advice definitely helped my symptoms.
Kate Winstanley, acupuncturist
THE THERAPY: This 2,000-year-old practice uses needles on certain points of the body to ‘redirect energy’, and promote healing.
Hitting the spot: Acupuncture uses needles at certain points in the body to promote healing
How it works:
I visit the acupuncturist right in the middle of a bout of bloating. I
waddled in, sat down and cradled my paunch but Kate doesn’t look at all
About 60 or 70 per cent of her
patients have digestive problems. She took my pulse and told me she was
going to put needles in my feet to stimulate my liver; in my wrists for
the large intestine, and in my left ear for my mind.
She screws the
needles in until I felt a jolt of energy — like the clutch biting in a
car. As she put the final needle into my wrist, my stomach began to
rumble like the brass section of a miniature orchestra. Ten minutes
later, I was still covered in needles but in a state of deep relaxation.
Dopily, I asked her
what she thinks is going on in my gut. ‘There’s a sluggishness to it,’
she said. ‘Your symptoms are often tied in with stress. People are often
fine on holiday or weekends.’
This is interesting — I rarely bloat when I’m away from work, feeling relaxed.
COST: From 80 for an initial consultation (katewinstanley.co.uk).
The loud and instant response to the needles left me in no doubt
whatsoever about the link between the gut and the specific acupuncture
However, I can’t help holding out for a more concrete diagnosis and a quick, easy solution.
Dr Matthew Banks, consultant gastroenterologist at The Lister Hospital, London.
THE THERAPY: Gastroenterology focuses on the treatment of digestive disorders.
HOW IT WORKS: Dr
Banks seemed interested in my anxieties. Did they start in childhood
How do they manifest now I told him my natural resting state was a
racing heart and furrowed brow.
Stress also increases levels of the hormone cortisol, making the body hold fat around the middle
My stomach was tapped and prodded, and my blood tested for liver function (normal) and Coeliac disease (negative). ‘The bloating you have is certainly a type of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS),’ he said, explaining that the understanding of why symptoms develop was very poor. However, the basic point is that your brain can control gut function.
He believes my IBS may have evolved from childhood anxiety. Unfortunately, treatment is minimal. ‘It’s poorly understood and there are virtually no treatments, so I haven’t much to offer,’ he admits, with reassuring honesty, but advises hypnotherapy as a possible solution. It has worked well in trials of patients with IBS; ‘Putting yourself in states of relaxation may improve your symptoms,’ Dr Banks added.
COST: 275 for an appointment, excluding tests (thelisterhospital.com).
VERDICT: Dr Banks was trustworthy and straightforward, so I decide to try hypnotherapy.
Bonita Rayner-Jones, hypnotherapist.
THE THERAPY: Hypnotherapy helps IBS by using trance to work with the unconscious mind.
HOW IT WORKS: Much of the first session is given over to talking about what I found stressful: frustrations in my career and friendships, my confidence, and how I handle confrontation and assertiveness.
Bonita says that when issues like these are unmanaged, anxieties can form, compromising the health of the gut.
My perceptions of hypnosis involve pendulums, plenty of staring and clicking of fingers.
Instead, I put my feet up and we both put on headsets. Bonita instructs me to focus on my breathing and then guides me through various scenarios: imagining a balloon inside my stomach, a peaceful place and picturing the air I breathed as a colour.
My body simultaneously feels like it’s squashing into the chair and floating above it. I am aware of what is going on but as if from a distant, dark burrow. My stomach gurgles in the same way as during the acupuncture.
After the trance, which lasted 30 minutes, Bonita says: ‘It doesn’t matter if you didn’t listen to every word. The words work on the unconscious mind.’
COST: 145 for the first session, and 125 thereafter. Five or six sessions recommended (hypnotherapyassociates.co.uk).
VERDICT: The almost constant factor through all these diagnoses has been stress — which hypnotherapy helps. Two weeks after my first session, both my mind and my tummy are feeling calmer.
It remains to be seen how the treatment will work in the long term, but Bonita says I need several more sessions to really benefit. I’ll definitely be back.
I’m coming to terms with the fact that IBS isn’t easy to cure, but by clearing my mind I hope I can shrink my stomach.
It’s alarming how quickly I cut out chunks of my diet and bought into a ‘free from’ lifestyle. IBS can be exacerbated by wheat, dairy and pulses but cutting them out won’t stop it if it’s stress that lies at the heart of the matter.