If you are gluten sensitive or coeliac, you will probably recognise this problem: that tell-tale expansion of the waistband for no apparent reason. You can wake up with it, put your best ‘thin’ trousers on and 5 minutes later have to undo the button. You can get it before meals, during meals, after meals, when you don’t eat, or all flippin’ day.
OK so it’s not usually painful or life-threatening but it is one of the symptoms I find distresses people the most. I remember in the early days having two wardrobes, one for OK days and one for what I then termed ‘IBS’ days. Many people have told me they do the same so I don’t feel quite so mad now!
Anyway, why does it happen, what is going on?
Well, it could be several things. First, an unhappy gut is going to have what we term ‘dysbiosis’. This is simply an imbalance of the good and bad bacteria. Baddies give off toxic gases and they bloat you up. Also, the more bad bacteria you have, the more likely you are to get other organisms like yeasts or moulds taking up residence – and those can cause leaky gut, bloating, wind, cramping and all manner of non-gut problems. That’s why often this has to be looked for and treated as a side issue to gluten sensitivity.
Second, coeliacs don’t absorb well. That means more food stays in the digestive tract for longer than it should. Fermenting away. Bloating, gurgling and wind inevitably follow. Yum.
Many gluten sensitives are deficient in the nutrients needed to make stomach acid and digestive enzymes. If you bloat with 20 minutes of a meal, your stomach acid is probably low – check here to read more about this; it is easily tested for at home using some bicarb!
If you bloat 2 or more hours after a meal, it is usually an enzyme problem – again, you can check it and take the right enzymes to help. Once you start raising the digestive capacity, you will start to break food down more and there is less partially-digested food left to ferment in the gut.
But, the mechanism that really fascinates me, and I think this is probably the most prevalent, is inflammation in the intestinal tissues.
If we have a problem anywhere in the body, the immune system creates an inflammatory reaction to deal with it. Part of this reaction involves flooding the surrounding tissues with fluid to protect the area and bring the good guys to kill whatever is attacking the tissue/heal whatever damage is being done, then flush the area.
Think of a cut on your skin. It goes red (inflammation), the area swells (fluid deposition) and it scabs over (heals with scar tissue). Your gut is just internal skin and the same process, more or less, happens there.
So, along comes some gluten, attacks the tissues and causes an inflammatory reaction. The body rushes the right cells and fluids to the scene and hey presto: bloating. Your intestinal tissues become engorged with fluid and this causes that distinctive pressure/hard bloated feeling.
Often, going on a gluten free diet means a ‘fat’ belly disappears: it wasn’t fat at all, but the result of an inflammatory process. Thank goodness for that, saves a fortune on clothes!