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Let’s Unpack That

I tried anti-bloating pills for two weeks, and now I know the gassy truth

Feel full after a meal? There’s now a pill for that. After a bride went viral for giving her wedding guests anti-bloating supplements along with their canapes, Kate Ng dug into the weird world of quick fixes, self-diagnosis and the apparent horror of distended bellies

Thursday 08 June 2023 06:30 BST
A bit of bloating is no longer something you can just wait a few hours to get rid of – social media dictates that it needs to be gone immediately, and if it doesn’t then there must be something wrong with you
A bit of bloating is no longer something you can just wait a few hours to get rid of – social media dictates that it needs to be gone immediately, and if it doesn’t then there must be something wrong with you (iStock)

Our bellies have always been the target of derision and ire. Long have they been poked and prodded. Sighed at and sucked in. Reprimanded and insulted. But ever since social media became the new WebMD for chronic self-diagnosers, it’s been open season on every little bodily function. Every involuntary twitch, skin bump and mood shift has been analysed to death – but none more so than the dreaded bloat.

Stomach bloating can happen for all sorts of reasons. Often the main culprit is a big meal. It’s that feeling of being uncomfortably full and needing to undo the top button of your jeans, as if you’ve just had a particularly heavy Sunday roast. Unless you have real food intolerances or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or the symptom is caused by hormonal changes, bloating is the body’s normal reaction to eating a little too much. It usually subsides after a few hours.

But this is 2023. A bit of bloating is no longer something you can just wait a few hours to get rid of – social media dictates that it needs to be gone immediately, and if it doesn’t then there must be something wrong with you. And not to stop there, either. You should also be cutting 10 different types of foods out of your life, doing five simple exercises 200 times a day and taking an assortment of supplements and pills because God forbid your stomach be round for the next two hours.

According to Dr Tamara Alireza, a functional medicine specialist at Skinfluencer London, bloating should be taken seriously if it doesn’t come and go with food. If it becomes a chronic problem, or is accompanied by other symptoms such as persistent stomach and pelvic pain, changes to bowel habits, unexpected weight loss, fatigue and fever, vomiting, or bleeding, it may be something different entirely. “Excess bloating can be linked to IBS, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and coeliac disease, but also to more serious conditions,” she says.

But we are a society obsessed with quick fixes, and anti-bloating pills have become a popular “cure” for the woes of a distended belly. Last month, fitness influencer Sam Cutler took it to new heights when she provided the pills for her wedding guests during the meal. Some viewers of her TikTok video – which sparked so much horror that it rapidly went viral – claimed that the pills were essentially “laxatives”. The glut of brands that have emerged in recent years would disagree, though. Many claim to use all-natural ingredients to “speed up digestion” and reduce gas without a laxative effect.

Admittedly, curiosity got the better of me. I am lucky enough not to suffer from any particularly gut-churning conditions, but I do have eyes bigger than my stomach. It means I regularly end up regretting wearing trousers to a meal, cursing myself as my belly strains against the waistband. Could these pills really make me feel more comfortable after a big dinner, or would they just lead to some unfortunate toilet habits?

I am kindly sent a couple of packs by Wild Dose, which lists extracts of ginger, liquorice, fennel seed, turmeric, peppermint leaf and dandelion root alongside a “proprietary enzyme complex” and a probiotic blend in each brown pill. They smell very herbal and are a rather unappealing greenish-brown colour – it initially makes me wonder if it’s an omen for what my guts are about to experience. After two weeks of taking them daily, I found that they did make a slight difference in my post-meal stupor and I feel comfortable quicker than before. However, the change has been marginal and, if anything, they made me more gassy, to the chagrin of my significant other.

The medical community is reluctant to support the efficacy of similar supplements, as there remains little clinical research to back up their claims. Dr Alireza describes anti-bloat pills as a “Band-Aid on a fire hydrant” for people who have genuine problems with their gut. “I generally would not recommend taking any pills to counteract the bloating,” she says, “rather I would be keen to first determine the source of the issue.” She points to her practice, which aims to determine the root cause of symptoms and treat it – instead of providing temporary fixes.

TikTok bride Sam Cutler provided her wedding guests with anti-bloat pills (TikTok/Sam Cutler)

But I think the real reason behind social media’s obsession with bloating has nothing to do with #guthealth. Instead, it is our inherent fatphobia and fear of fatness that fuel this battle against the bloat. Are we so afraid of looking fat for even a couple of hours that we flock to pills and exercises with such abandon? Given the way people have fallen over themselves to get their hands on Ozempic, a drug intended to help diabetes patients but which has made a name for itself as a weight-loss miracle, it appears the answer is yes.

It’s no mistake, either, that women are the primary targets for anti-bloating content online. Studies show that women are twice as likely to experience it as men, particularly during menstruation and menopause because of hormonal fluctuations. But the expectation for women to maintain at least the illusion of thinness at all times is also much higher. Many of us learned at an early age how to suck in our stomachs and – even as adults – keep them sucked in pretty much all day. As I write this, I realise that I’ve been subconsciously engaging my core muscles despite sitting behind a desk. No wonder the promise of no more bloating is so appealing, if it makes looking mildly smaller less of a chore.

Joanna Dase, fitness expert and operations director of female-focused health clubs Curves, says that any medical conditions should be diagnosed by qualified professionals rather than social media. She acknowledges that while bloating can affect body image, no one should worry about your normal, natural responses to digestion. “If you have a professional opinion and there is no health problem related to it, then you just need to have an actual understanding of your body and its natural functions, and being OK with yourself. It’s just how your body breaks down food.”

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