Bloating—it can be uncomfortable or even downright painful. What makes it more painful is how tough it is to pin down the cause. While everyone experiences bloating sometimes, frequent discomfort can be a sign of acid reflux or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, gluten sensitivities, or even a poor diet, just to name a few.
We don’t need to tell you that abdominal bloating can cause real discomfort. But what we can tell you is what causes it and how can you treat it. Before we get to that, let’s talk about the symptoms.
What does bloating feel like?
The best way to describe bloating is a feeling of fullness, sometimes accompanied by painful discomfort. It feels like you just ate a full Thanksgiving dinner by yourself when all you had was a small snack. In addition to the general stomach discomfort, you may also burp.
What causes bloating?
- Acid reflux: Even though bloating can cause acid reflux, acid reflux can also cause bloating. Remember those foods that are high in fat? Those same types of food can trigger acid reflux, which then increases gas production, and excess gas causes bloating.
- Constipation: The longer your stool stays in your colon, the more time bacteria has to ferment and cause excess gas.
- Menstruation: According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, up to 85% of people who menstruate report physical symptoms related to their period and this includes bloating, which is mostly due to water retention. (More on that below.)
- Overeating: This is the most common cause of bloating, especially if you’ve eaten foods that are high in fat. They often take much longer to digest than proteins and carbohydrates.
- Too much gas: Maybe you swallowed too much air, which can happen when you eat or drink too fast or talk while eating. Or maybe you’ve eaten something that’s known to increase gas production like beans or dairy products. Either way, you now have too much gas build-up with nowhere to go.
- Water retention: When water builds up in the body (mostly around the legs, abdomen, and arms), this causes bloating. According to this study, water levels can make your weight fluctuate by as much as two to four pounds within a single day.
So, how do you relieve bloating?
Make a few lifestyle changes
- Exercise: Whether it’s going out for a walk or a run, getting moving can help you relieve that extra gas. Plus, just sweating while exercising can help bring some relief since that aids in removing water retention. Speaking of water...
- Drink more water: Drinking at least eight glasses of water per day not only relieves bloating, but also helps relieve other gastrointestinal issues such as constipation and even water weight gain. Why? When your body is dehydrated, it automatically starts storing water. Drinking water is important because it aids in the production of urine (which is largely made up of water) and the movement of stool. So the more hydrated you are, the easier it is for your body to move things along and the least likely you are to experience bloating caused by constipation.
- Eat fiber-rich foods: According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, adults need to consume a certain amount of fiber each day: 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. Eating fiber-rich foods can help move things along within the digestive tract. However, if you do plan on increasing your fiber intake, make sure to also drink plenty of water. If you don't get enough fluids, the extra fiber can end up working against you and cause more bloating and even constipation (although these symptoms usually go away after a few weeks once your body adjusts to the new fiber levels).
- Eat smaller portions: If overeating can cause bloating, then it only makes sense that eating smaller meals can help as a preventive measure.
- Reduce sodium intake: Consuming too much salt that can cause your body to retain water and hence increase bloating. According to the FDA, you shouldn’t consume more than one teaspoon of salt per day!
- Avoid carbonated beverages: These drinks are packed with gas bubbles that can build up in your stomach. So if bloating is an issue, it would be best to replace these beverages with some good old fashioned water.
Try a treatment
- Take simethicone: Whether you take it as a tablet or a liquid, this anti-gas medication can help relieve bloat by breaking down the gas bubbles in your gut.
- Get some calcium carbonate: Calcium carbonate (a.k.a. antacids) helps by lowering the amount of acid in your stomach.
- Use peppermint oil: Peppermint oil supplements aren’t justfor keeping bad breath at bay—they actually relax the muscles of your digestive tract. That helps keep bloating and stomach pain under control. However, these can sometimes worsen heartburn and other acid reflux symptoms, so be sure to track your symptoms if you go this route.
- Try activated charcoal: Charcoal traps gas molecules, thereby reducing bloat. There are some studies that suggest that when activated charcoal is combined with simethicone, it becomes even more effective at reducing gas and bloating.
- Incorporate probiotics into your daily routine: Taking probiotics is a great way to help relieve bloating because they are considered good bacteria. This type of bacteria helps keep the digestive tract in check by regulating the colon bacteria that can cause gas.
Treat the underlying condition
If your bloating is caused by a chronic condition, such as acid reflux or IBS, you should think about treating the condition to see if it helps to reduce bloating (plus any other digestive symptoms you’re feeling).
Your first step should be figuring out which condition, if any, is the root of your symptoms. Common conditions include both IBS and acid reflux. (You can read up on the differences between IBS and acid reflux right here.)
If acid reflux turns out to be the problem, consider making a few changes to your lifestyle (as mentioned above) as well as trying a treatment. Two of the most popular treatments include such as antacids and PPIs.
IBS treatments can include lifestyle modifications like sticking to a certain type of diet, over-the-counter medications like laxatives and antidiarrheals, or prescription medications like antispasmodics (which help calm your digestive system).
When should you worry about bloating?
Bloating can be very uncomfortable, but it’s usually temporary. However, sometimes it can be your body’s way of saying there’s a bigger problem. If you’re experiencing any of the following, you should contact your doctor:
- Abnormal bowel movements
- Chronic pain
- Loss of appetite
- Rectal bleeding
- Weight loss
Feeling bloated is a bummer and can ruin anyone’s day. The good news is that there are a lot of treatment options that can bring you relief.
That said, maintaining a healthy digestive tract is the best preventative. To do that, you’ll need to find the right lifestyle and dietary choices for you (and keep your doctor in the loop about any major changes).
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash