Most of us have experienced that uncomfortably full sensation known as bloating. Bloating happens when your gastrointestinal (GI) tract becomes filled with air or gas, making your stomach feel like an overinflated balloon ready to pop. You may also feel gassy or notice rumbling in your stomach.
Bloating is uncomfortable at best — and painful at worst. It’s best to nip it in the bud ASAP, especially if you frequently feel bloated. But to do that, you need to figure out why you feel bloated in the first place.
Common causes of bloating
We spoke to a few experts to better understand the causes of bloating (and how to prevent it).
1. Eating fiber-rich foods
While fiber is an essential nutrient, it’s also a common bloating culprit when eaten in excess, registered dietitian Lexi Moriarty said.
Fiber is an indigestible type of carbohydrate. “Rather than being digested in the small intestine, it travels almost intact to the colon where it’s broken down by certain bacteria, which can produce gas in the process,” Moriarty said.
To prevent bloat, gradually increase the fiber you eat over a few weeks until you reach 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men.
2. Restricting calories
Cutting calories or simply forgetting to eat can cause bloat. “When the body doesn’t have enough calories to function optimally, it changes how it digests food in order to conserve energy,” Moriarty said.
Your body will also try to squeeze as many nutrients out of food as possible, causing it to linger in the digestive tract longer than usual. “Both of these changes cause uncomfortable symptoms like bloating and gas,” Moriarty said.
If you’re cutting calories for weight loss and noticing more bloating, consult a registered dietitian to ensure you’re not creating too much of a calorie deficit.
As many as 3 in 4 women reported feeling bloated before and during their menstrual periods. There are a few explanations for menstrual bloat.
First, the estrogen spike causes water retention. This, coupled with the increased volume of your uterus before your period, can make you feel super bloated. In addition, estrogen and progesterone can make you gassy by either slowing or speeding digestion.
Minimize period bloat by limiting salt in your diet, getting regular aerobic exercise, and practicing relaxation techniques like meditation.
Being constipated means you have fewer than three bowel movements per week. And if you’re constipated, expect to become bloated.
When waste backs up in your colon, recently digested food has to sit longer in the intestines. This forces your GI tract to expand to accommodate the extra food and waste, causing your stomach to feel fuller and tighter.
Plus, the longer your stool stays in your colon, the more time bacteria have to ferment it. The result? More gas and bloating.
Constipation is best treated by your doctor. However, lifestyle changes such as increasing your fiber intake and exercising may help.
You may overeat when stressed or bored or socializing with friends and family. Eating past the point of fullness causes your stomach to expand and forces your body to work overtime to digest all that food.
You need to help your body digest your meal to reduce bloat caused by overeating. A few great moves include walking and drinking plenty of water. According to registered dietitian Paulina Lee, you can also brew a mug of peppermint or ginger tea to speed things up.
6. Swallowing air
Chewing gum, smoking, drinking sodas and other carbonated beverages, or eating too fast can cause you to swallow air, which leads to trapped air and gas in the gut, according to Lee.
Practicing mindful eating is an easy way to limit the amount of air you swallow. “Don’t multi-task when eating so you can concentrate on your meal and chew each bite thoroughly,” Lee said.
Also, cut back or quit chewing gum, smoking, and drinking carbonated beverages.
7. Food intolerances
Many people have a food intolerance or trouble digesting certain foods. Lactose intolerance, for example, happens when your body can’t properly break down lactose (a milk sugar), causing gas and bloating within a few hours of eating dairy.
If you suspect your bloating comes from food intolerance, work with a registered dietitian or GI specialist to find a solution.
When is bloating serious?
In most cases, bloating should ease within a few hours to days. If you’re constipated, your bloating will improve once you have a bowel movement. However, see your healthcare provider if your bloated stomach worsens, lasts longer than a week, is persistently painful, or comes with symptoms such as fever, vomiting, or bleeding.
Moreover, bloating can be a symptom of other medical conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), and Crohn’s disease. So, if you’re frustrated by bloating, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor to see if another health condition may be to blame.
How to prevent bloating
There are several ways to prevent bloat. Try these methods:
- Eat enough fiber. Fiber helps clean your digestive system and feeds good gut bacteria. If you struggle to fit fiber-rich foods like vegetables and fruits into your diet, try powdered greens. One scoop (about 8 grams) of Amazing Grass’ green powder blend offers 3 grams. However, it’s important to introduce fiber gradually, so you don’t overwhelm your digestive system and cause bloat.
- Drink plenty of water. Water encourages things to keep moving along your digestive tract, preventing constipation and bloat.
- Exercise regularly. Physical activity keeps your digestive system moving.
- Eat mindfully. Taking time to chew thoroughly can prevent you from swallowing air that leads to bloat. It may also help you avoid overeating.
- Watch for food sensitivities. If you notice that you tend to bloat after eating certain foods, you may have a food sensitivity. Get help from a registered dietitian or GI specialist.