Bloating 101 – Why, What, How

Nobody likes feeling bloated, but it’s all too common of an occurrence. Your clothes don’t fit right, and it’s uncomfortable. In some cases, you might even feel stomach pain. Up to 30 percent of people say they often have a sensation of bloating.

What is the cause of bloating, and how can you treat or prevent it? Let’s look at the basics of bloating and how to let the air out of the problem.

What Is Bloating?

One of the difficulties in understanding bloating is that it might mean different things to different people. For example, for some, symptoms of heartburn or gastric reflux might be described as bloating. For the most part, however, when someone feels bloated, it’s usually a mid-lower abdominal sensation. You feel full as if your stomach was filled with too much gas. This usually happens after eating, but you could feel bloated at any time of day.

What Causes Bloating?

In most cases, bloating is the actual presence of too much solid, liquid, gas or a combination of these in your stomach or intestines. However, some people might have a sensitive intestinal tract. This means the sensation of bloating is magnified even if they don’t have much in their gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Overall, bloating is typically not associated with serious disease. Later, we’ll look at some less common causes of bloating which may indicate a more dangerous problem.

Overeating & Fast Eating

If you eat fast and stuff yourself full, then you’re likely to feel bloated. Although this might seem obvious, many don’t realize they eat too fast. Your digestive system sends signals to your brain to tell you when you feel full. Rapid eating overrides these sensors, and they don’t kick in until you’ve eaten too much.

Some ways to limit your meal size:

  • Eat just one plate of food; don’t serve yourself seconds
  • Set your fork down when you eat; chew and swallow before picking up your fork again
  • Eat more frequent smaller meals instead of a few big meals

Rich, Creamy, Fatty Foods

Rich and fatty foods are more difficult to digest. In general, fat takes longer to digest than protein or carbohydrates. This means food sits in your stomach longer making you feel stuffed.

Tight Clothing

This might seem like common sense, but clothes that fit too tight can cause a bloating sensation. Are you trying to squeeze into clothes a few sizes too small? Your clothing should fit comfortably. If you are carrying a few extra pounds, weight loss might resolve your bloating and let you back into your favorite jeans.

Tobacco Use

Beyond the risk of heart disease and cancer, tobacco can also lead to heartburn and bloating symptoms. The best choice is to quit smoking completely.

Food Allergies & Sensitivities

In many cases, bloating may be due to a problem with food allergies or poor digestion. The classic example is lactose intolerance. The cause of lactose intolerance is that your small intestine doesn’t make enough of the enzyme lactase which is required to digest milk sugar (lactose).

Symptoms of lactose intolerance can include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bloating
  • Gas

Lactose intolerance reveals something interesting about bloating symptoms. In this disorder, undigested lactose ends up in the colon where it interacts with bacteria which causes the symptoms. However, since the path of the colon rises toward the upper abdomen, you may feel like the bloating sensation is in your stomach.

Besides lactose, other common foods that can cause bloating are fructose (sugar), eggs, wheat, and gluten.

Swallowed Gas

Many times, when people are bloated, they say they feel “gassy.” In some cases, this is exactly what happens. For instance, if you consume a lot of carbonated drinks, the gas could cause a bloated sensation. If you combine this with intolerance to sugary drinks, then the symptoms could be even worse.

Other ways too much air can get into your stomach might be from gum chewing, drinking through a straw, eating quickly or talking while you eat. Even anxiety can increase bloating as stress can cause you to swallow more air.

Beans Are Nutritious Yet Gassy

Many already know what foods give them gas. For instance, beans and lentils are notorious gas producers. The reason is that these foods contain difficult to digest oligosaccharides, which is a kind of sugar. Later, these sugars get broken down by bacteria in the gut, and one of the byproducts of this process is gas.

Other difficult to digest sugar- or starch-containing foods include:

  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Carrots
  • Prunes
  • Apricots
  • Wheat
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Broccoli
  • Artichokes
  • Beans
  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Watermelon

High-fiber foods can also lead to a bloated stomach since fiber is an indigestible carbohydrate. If you suddenly increase fiber in your diet, you may experience bloating. One of the ways to prevent this is to drink plenty of water and increase the fiber in your diet gradually.

What Does FODMAP Have to Do with Bloating?

Research has shown that fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAP) can cause symptoms of gas and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Nearly all the foods named so far in this article fall under the FODMAP category.

Because these foods may be hard to digest, they end up unprocessed in the colon. There, bacteria break down the FODMAP components, which ends up producing gas.

Artificial Sweeteners

As we’ve seen, sugary foods can lead to bloating. If you think you can avoid this by using artificial sweeteners, think again. Sweeteners like sorbitol also can’t be digested and can lead to feeling bloated. Even diet soft drinks are known to cause bloating.

Enzyme Supplements

You might have noticed a common theme that indigestible foods can cause bloating. For this reason, some companies have developed digestive enzymes you can take to aid in digestion and decrease bloating.

Lactase is commonly used by lactose intolerant people who want to enjoy dairy products. There’s even a product called Beano that contains alpha-galactosidase, an enzyme that breaks down indigestible carbohydrates.

Intestinal Obstruction

Another cause of bloating could be that your GI tract is blocked up. For example, chronic constipation may lead to feeling stuffed all the time. The way to begin treating constipation is by drinking plenty of water and getting exercise. Even though fiber might add to bloating at first, try increasing your fiber in your diet gradually to improve bowel function.

If you have persistent or worsening bloating and/or constipation, you should see a doctor. In rare cases, these symptoms could be due to a physical blockage of the intestines, such as by a tumor.

Consider Probiotics

The human gut contains millions of bacteria, and some of these participate in the digestive process. Probiotics are a type of bacteria supplement, often administered in yogurt, cheese or other fermented foods.

Some studies have shown that probiotics may reduce gassiness. This makes sense since the extra bacteria may improve digestion. Still, if you try this, give it time to work. Building up new gut bacterial flora takes time.

Other Causes of Bloating

It’s interesting that so many different things can cause the same symptoms. But, the list goes on. Also, bloating could be due to a combination of factors. Other causes of bloating may include:

  • Gut sensitivity: If you have IBS, you can be extremely sensitive to increased abdominal pressure
  • Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO): In most people, the small intestine has relatively few bacteria; if you’ve had intestinal surgery or you suffer from IBS, you are more likely to have SIBO
  • Gastroparesis: This is a type of gut muscle weakening or paralysis which leads to slow stomach emptying; this condition is especially common in people who have diabetes. Plus, gastroparesis is more common in women.
  • Gynecological disorders: Issues related to the ovaries or uterus may cause bloating

The common thread to all causes of bloating is that any disorder in the stomach or pelvic area can potentially cause symptoms of fullness. The trick is determining from where the symptoms originate.

Common Sense Steps to Avoid Bloating

There are several things you can do to eliminate or reduce feelings of being bloated. These include:

  • Avoid eating too fast and avoid large meals
  • Keep fatty foods to a minimum
  • Check your diet for foods that commonly cause bloating; eliminate them one by one from your diet and take note of any change in symptoms
  • Add probiotics to your diet; even if they don’t help with bloating, they have many other potential health benefits
  • Avoid sugary drinks and artificial sweeteners
  • Exercise regularly and drink plenty of water
  • Try enzyme supplements
  • If symptoms persist, worsen or are severe, consult with your doctor

The wisest way to start might be like this:

  • Eliminate foods that are unhealthy first like sugars and fats
  • Get more exercise and increase water intake
  • If symptoms persist, try eliminating foods starting with dairy products
  • Add probiotics to your diet

Remember, you don’t have to stay bloated. Use an intelligent approach and get rid of that bothersome stomach bloating once and for all.