Have you ever noticed that you tend to bloat in high-waisted jeans? Or wondered what wearing tight shapewear does to your insides? Answer: your clothes are disrupting your digestion.
As someone with a sartorial weakness, I consider myself a bit of an expert when it comes to shopping for clothes. I know my go-to brands, what suits my body shape and I had my colours done way back when that was a thing. But recently, I’ve become aware that there’s something else going on with my clothes.
I took my daughter to Pizza Express last week for a chilled-out lunch. Wearing my favourite mom jeans, just a few minutes after sitting down I began to feel bloated and uncomfortable. By the time we got home, I couldn’t wait to swap my jeans for joggers.
As someone who was diagnosed with IBS almost 20 years ago, this in itself is nothing new. But something did seem different this time: almost as soon as I took my jeans off, I felt better. Could it actually be my clothes making me feel bad?
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It turns out that I wasn’t too far off the mark. As nutritional therapist Anna Mapson explains, it might be a combination of IBS and tight clothing making me feel this way: “Tight waistbands that cut into your belly can impact on the smooth passage of digestion, causing gas, bloating and stomach cramps. People with IBS may have visceral hypersensitivity, which means they will feel more pain from a normal amount of gas or fermentation.”
Experts agree that skinny jeans are the worst offending garment, as the tight waistband tends to sit directly on the small intestine, where most of your digestion takes place. Constricting this area slows the normal digestive process, leaving you even more bloated and uncomfortable.
Clinical nutritionist Nishtha Patel says the ramifications of this can be serious: “I had a patient who suffered from inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) and her pain intensified as she bloated. Her jeans made things far worse, to the point where she actually fainted on one occasion.”
Even looser styles, such as my trusty mom jeans, have a fairly rigid waistband, so if you know you’re going to be sitting for long periods, have a long day at work or will be eating a heavy meal, Mapson advises going for comfy clothes where you have “space to expand a little and stop if getting any more uncomfortable, especially during an IBS flare up.”
The good news is that most of the damaging effects are reversible, meaning that once the offending item of clothing is removed, you should feel better fairly quickly as your body starts to process food normally again.
Fellow IBS sufferer Lucy Wilson, 41, has also noticed a link between her wardrobe choices and her symptoms: “My clothes definitely have an impact on my IBS. Tight clothes can make me bloated straight away. Even just trying something on for five minutes can make my IBS flare up; I can end up bloated and dizzy and I’ll have to sit down. It’s a real struggle to find clothes to wear.”
Tight clothing can cause problems for many women, with or without IBS
For many women, no matter what causes their gut issues, finding clothes that are comfortable and stylish is a problem. Rosie Mullender, a 44-year-old writer, has had to completely overhaul her wardrobe in response to her poor gut health: “I very rarely wear jeans anymore as they’re so uncomfortable. Even if they fit in the morning, I’ll be desperate to take them off by the evening. I can’t wear slim-fitting dresses anymore and shapewear makes my stomach as tight as a drum. My clothes have a huge effect on how I feel, both physically and emotionally.”
Even if you don’t suffer from gut-related issues already, Mapson warns: “If digestion is constantly slowed down over months of consistently wearing tight clothing, you may be susceptible to small intestine bacterial overgrowth, known as SIBO. This is a condition where bacteria grow and ferment in the small intestine, as digestive transit is slowed by constriction. It can be treated with antibiotics or supplements but can take a long time to resolve.”
Bloating, acid reflux and abnormal breathing
Unfortunately, skinny jeans aren’t the only culprits. Our current obsession with shapewear (thanks, Kim!) is also taking its toll on our bodies. Constricting our mid-sections to create a streamlined, sleek silhouette can compromise our ability to breathe normally, which is kind of a big deal.
Shapewear can compress internal organs against the diaphragm, meaning it has less room to expand and contract in a normal, healthy way as we breathe. This can lead to hyperventilation and, in extreme cases, panic attacks.
More commonly, Patel explains: “Intra-gastric pressure from tight fitting clothes can trigger acid reflux and heartburn, as the stomach acid is pushed back up the oesophagus. Even if you don’t normally suffer from acid reflux, if you wear these types of clothes often enough, you may find that you end up with a reflux issue.”
The consequences of reflux can be severe, leading to inflammation of the oesophagus and permanent damage to tooth enamel.
Longer term, restrictive clothing can put your immune system under threat. Tight outfits may prevent a healthy flow of waste products through the lymphatic system which runs from the neck to the lower limbs. This can lead to a build-up of toxins within the body, leaving you more prone to infections.
The experts are unanimous that if you really must wear tight or shaping items, save them for special occasions and limit the amount of time you spend in them. This might mean taking a looser set of clothes to change into or tracking how your clothes make you feel over a set amount of time to enable you to recognise any patterns.
Ultimately, consultant dietitian Sophie Medlin stresses that “our clothes are meant to fit us, rather than us fitting our clothes. The advice is always to buy a wardrobe that fits and is comfortable.”
I’m taking that as medical permission to add to basket.
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