Welcome to the latest from Wellness Council, our handpicked holistic health squad: a tightly curated group that gives the best advice this side of your own personal guru.
Here, women's hormone expert Alisa Vitti (AKA "the hormone whisperer") lays out some unexpected reasons for bloating.
What she writes about next is up to you—tell us what what you're dying to know! Send questions and ideas to email@example.com.
In my many years as a women’s hormonal health expert, I have yet to meet a client who hasn’t dealt with one particularly problematic and sometimes painful issue: bloating. Just about every woman I know has skipped a party, canceled a date, or missed out on some awesome opportunity because she felt a balloon-like tension in her gut.
This isn’t just about vanity; in addition to making your skinny jeans your worst enemy, belly bloat can hurt, and it can be accompanied by a lot of other upsetting symptoms like intense PMS and period problems.
Many women don’t connect the dots when these issues all simultaneously crop up, and I understand why. Women’s magazines and popular media have told us that if you’re not flaunting washboard abs, you’re not doing enough work in the gym or you’re consuming too many calories—and it’s time to cut back.
A certain set of your gut bacteria (known as the estrobolome) is responsible for one very important hormonal function: metabolizing estrogen.
But I’m here to tell you that bloating has less to do with how committed you are to your diet and exercise plan and much more to do with the bacteria in your gut—and, maybe, how efficiently you're metabolizing estrogen.
Get to know: the estrobolome
Experts are only now beginning to understand how the millions of microbes in your digestive tract have a significant impact on your overall health. But what many women don’t know is that the seemingly superficial woes of belly bloat can be a real sign that something is seriously off with their bacterial balance.
When your microbiome—the flora populating your insides—becomes imbalanced, your gut can start to react to certain foods, have problems digesting nutrients, and yes, become inflamed and bloated.
However, your gut isn’t just dedicated to processing food. A certain set of your bacteria—known as the estrobolome—is responsible for one very important hormonal function: metabolizing estrogen. And an imbalance among these bacteria can create a host of issues.
Signs of an estrobolome imbalance
Bloating isn’t the only red flag that signals a problem with the estrobolome.
Many of the biggest hormonal issues women face—everything from acne and low libido to stubborn extra pounds and heavy periods—can be signs that the microbiome and estrobolome are compromised and you’re no longer efficiently metabolizing estrogen.
This leads to an excess of the hormone in your body, which subsequently worsens your PMS and period symptoms and makes you bloated and miserable.
Why an imbalance occurs
Food is your best friend when it comes to healing your gut and your hormones, but that also means poor dietary choices can play a big role in compromising your health. Dairy, sugar, and gluten are major culprits in exacerbating bacterial imbalances, and consistently consuming these kinds of foods can set you up for a downward spiral.
Overuse of antibiotics can also put your estrobolome at risk. That’s because these drugs don’t discriminate: They kill the bad bacteria that are causing your sickness or infection, but they also exterminate all the good guys, making it super difficult for your gut to bounce back.
Another major cause that’s unbelievably common? The birth control pill. Just like antibiotics, the pill can eliminate the good bacteria in your gut and encourage the bad guys to multiply. It can also set you up for a case of SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), which can make bloating and other hormonal symptoms even worse.
But there’s a silver lining to all this doom and gloom: The right foods and lifestyle tips can absolutely help you beat the bloat, reclaim your hormonal and flora balance, and get your health back on track.
The three ways to overcome bloating
Consider alternate birth control options. The pill isn’t your only option when it comes to pregnancy prevention, and for many women, it definitely doesn’t fix their hormonal issues. Rather, it covers up the root cause of symptoms, making it even harder to heal. Not to mention, if you have a family history of Crohn’s disease—a symptomatic disease of imbalance in the microbiome—recent research suggests the pill may make you more likely to develop it. If you’re sexually active and not looking to get pregnant, consider non-hormonal natural contraception alternatives.
Make probiotics part of your diet. If you’re going to rebalance your gut, you need to populate it with good bacteria. Start with a supplement from a well-established company like Jarrow; I like their Stable-Dophilus formula because it doesn’t need refrigeration. Then start eating more probiotic-rich fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut.
Load up on prebiotics, too. Prebiotics feed those good bacteria to keep them working in your favor—load up on leafy greens and root veggies to get your fix.
Is your period healthy?
And as always, it's good to keep an eye on what's happening in your body by monitoring what I call the "fifth vital sign"—your period.
The color of your flow, frequency of your period, and symptoms you have each month can tell you a lot about your overall health, not just your gut health. There are five different V-Sign types (click here to take The V-Sign Type Quiz), and knowing which type you are will help you get healthy now and prevent disease in the future.
Alisa Vitti, HHC, is an integrative nutritionist, best-selling author of WomanCode, and the founder of FLOLiving.com, a virtual health center that supports women’s hormonal and reproductive health. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Alisa has a web series on Lifetime, serves on the Yahoo Health advisory board, and is an advisor to several health and health tech startups. She has presented at TEDx, Talks@Google, Summit Series Outside, Hay House, WIE Symposium, and SHE Summit. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.
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