The feeling of bloat can be miserable. Usually after big greasy meals (yes mala hotpot, we’re looking at you), we can feel stuffed, gassy, heavy and just downright uncomfortable.
In fact, studies show that about 1 in 5 people experience abdominal bloat on a regular basis. Bloating is defined as the sensation of abdominal swelling, but sometimes, this extends to a visible distention in stomach girth — a ballooning effect on the stomach. And that’s why digestive bloat results in jeans that cries to be unfastened, like ten minutes ago.
Bloatedness can be more severe for individuals with abdominal pain or those who suffer from chronic Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).
This feeling of bloatedness is usually accompanied by several other symptoms such as:
- Feeling of stuffiness in the chest and diaphragm
- Reduced or poor appetite
- Frequent belching
- Irregular bowel movements, i.e. constipation
According to Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, our gut health can determine things like the functioning of your immune system, your mood — and even help combat obesity.
So, how can we beat the belly bloat and balance our gut health so that it won’t happen to us again? Luckily for us, this is possible with strategies rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to mitigate the problem.
What causes digestive bloat, from a TCM perspective
Digestive bloat is known as Pi Man (痞满) in TCM speak, and is typically caused by the food you eat.
The organ responsible for this is the spleen. According to TCM theory, the spleen is in charge of the digestion and metabolism of the food we eat. Whenever we overeat, ingest food that is too oily or spicy, our spleen is overloaded and this can result in Qi stagnation.
The obstruction of Qi in the Spleen and Stomach can be caused by an external pathogen (e.g. unclean or unhealthy food). This weakens the Spleen and prevents it from distributing fluids in the body effectively. Pathogenic fluids can accumulate in the digestive tract causing the bloat to worsen. A lot of times, constipation also follows, as the Stomach Qi is unable to aid the passage of digested food downwards and backs up through the digestive tract instead.
If left untreated, digestive bloat can result in a loss of muscle mass and other health problems in the long run.
Natural bloat-beating remedies rooted in TCM
To nourish your spleen for better digestion, try drinking this Chinese Four Herbs Soup (四神汤). It is a simple, nutritious way to help improve the function of the spleen — and you only need 4 herbs.
Ingredients for the Chinese Four Herbs Soup (四神汤 Si Shen Tang)
- Chinese Yam (淮山药)
- Lotus seeds (湘莲子)
- Gorgon fruit (芡实)
- Poria (茯苓) — optional
Place all ingredients into a slow cooker and let simmer over low heat for about four hours. This soup can be taken once a week and all ingredients can be eaten after slow cooking. Optional: you may want to remove Poria (茯苓) if you dislike its distinctive powdery taste.
If soup’s not really your thing, we’ve also got a refreshing Mint Orange Tea concoction rooted in TCM to combat bloating and improve digestion.
Ingredients for the Mint Orange Tea:
- Mandarin orange peels (陈皮)
- Mint leaves (薄荷叶)
- Ginger slices (生姜片)
Steep these ingredients in hot water for about 10 minutes for an aromatic tea that helps move stagnant Qi and relieve bloating.
These are the foods you should NOT eat to reduce bloat.
Some foods can make us more prone to bloating so we should cut down the consumption of these if your tummy tends to become bloated and gassy. If you are already feeling bloated, then you should stop eating the following foods:
- Soft drinks: The carbonation in soft drinks introduces gas into the stomach and worsens the symptoms of distention. On top of that, the high sugar content in these drinks also intensifies bloating as gut bacteria turn sugars into even more gas. If you feel gassy and bloated already, stop guzzling down that Coke! Even if it’s Coke Zero.
- Beans, lentils and onions: These vegetables, while giving us nutrients that’s good for our body, are known to cause excessive gas production. Overconsumption of these foods might cause you to fart excessively (ugh!). If the gas is not released, it could cause discomfort in your abdomen, making you feel uncomfortable and bloated.
- Dairy products: Many delicious pastries — especially our Chinese New Year goodies — are made with copious amounts of butter and milk that are dairy products. Lactose-intolerant people would find this hard to stomach (pun not intended), causing pain in the stomach, bloating or diarrhea. A study found that 95% of Asians are lactose-intolerant!
- Alcohol: Toasting with alcoholic beverages as we welcome a new year of good health and prosperity is a common sight to see during Lunar New Year gatherings. However, drinking too much can also cause problems with our gut and Liver. Always drink in moderation and make sure to hydrate well with water (at room temperature!). Consuming alcohol is very dehydrating to our body as it triggers urinary frequency.
Other TCM tips to combat digestive problems
In TCM, the Liver is in charge of regulating Qi in the body. A weak Liver would lead to stagnant Qi, resulting in dysrhythmic contractions of the gut which manifests as digestive bloat. Sleeping early, eating properly and exercising regularly are three important habits in life that TCM strongly recommends, to help prevent the disruption of Qi flow and maintain a healthy gut.
- Go to bed by 10:30pm and fall asleep by 11pm. This is one of the most important lifestyle habits from a TCM perspective because from 11pm to 3am, the paired Gallbladder and Liver meridians are the most active. During this time, both organs repair and help our body with their Yang Qi (vital energy necessary for all biochemical activities in our body) nourishing function in order to prepare our body for the next day. They are also closely related to our digestive function as they play an important role in ensuring the quality of Qi running through our digestive system.
- Eat your meals at fixed times and don’t overeat! Eating regularly allows your body to become used to the rhythm of cyclical secretion of enzymes for the digestion of food. If you are unable to take meals at a fixed time due to a busy work schedule, standby a healthy snack. You should also stop eating when you feel about 70% full so that your gut is not overburdened by a huge amount of food at one go. Yup, you got it — don’t eat until you feel like you’re bursting and huge buffets? A thing of the past.
- Exercise regularly. Working out helps with the rhythmic contractions in the gastrointestinal system, improves digestion and relieves bloating. It also helps move things along our intestines. However, you should avoid strenuous exercise right after food as well as 1 hour before bedtime.
When does bloating become a serious cause of concern?
Bloating is a very common problem and the duration of bloatedness can last from a quick 30 minutes to almost an entire day. It usually gets better on its own and there is no need to seek medical treatment.
However, should the discomfort persist for more than 12 hours, or if you experience worsening symptoms like heartburn, vomiting or prolonged constipation, please seek treatment immediately from a professional doctor or certified TCM physician.
TCM treatments to cure digestive ailments
1. Herbal medication
In TCM, herbal medication is a common treatment for bloating. They are prescribed by a TCM physician based on your condition and body constitution to help regulate and balance the flow of Qi to its proper channels.
Acupuncture can be used as an adjuvant to help with bloatedness alongside herbal medication as it provides fast relief to acute bloating. Common acupoints used include:
- Zu San Li 足三里 (ST36)
- Zhong Wan 中脘 (CV12)
- Nei Guan 内关 (PC6)
- Tai Chong 太冲 (LR3)
- Pi Shu 脾俞 (BL 20)
These points help stimulate the meridians that aid with the smooth flow of Qi in the digestive system.
You can also try this DIY acupressure massage on your own if you are feeling bloated or having indigestion:
Massage your Zu San Li 足三里 (ST36) acupoint to aid digestion and reduce bloatedness. To find acupoint ST36, first locate the ‘dimple’ on your kneecap and place 4 fingers down (~3cun). Using a finger, massage the point in a clockwise direction with firm pressure on this point for about 3-5 mins on both legs to achieve best results.
3. Electro-Lymphatic Therapy (ELT)
When you experience bloating, it means that Qi in your digestive system is not flowing or flowing in the reverse direction of your intestines. Electro-Lymphatic Therapy (ELT) simulates a light massage to ease distention in the abdomen. It is a gentle, non-invasive therapy that stimulates proper flow and drainage of the lymphatic system. This is an alternative treatment for acupuncture that is painless and feels like a light tuina.
Start paying attention to the types of foods you are eating and cut them out of your diet if they are the culprits that cause bloating.
Note: All words in Italics refer to the TCM organ-system and not the anatomical organ referenced in western medicine.
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Please consult a physician for any medical advice required.
Physician Lim Jing Yang is a senior physician at Oriental Remedies Group. He graduated from NTU/BCUM with a double degree in Biomedical Science and TCM and later pursued his Master’s course in BUCM.