You know the feeling when your pants are a little tougher to zip than usual? When you feel overly full, like you’ve just eaten Thanksgiving dinner? Or when you can’t seem to stop passing gas?
You’re likely experiencing bloat.
“Bloating is the subjective feeling of gassiness, abdominal pressure or fullness,” says UNC Health gastroenterologist Zachary Spiritos, MD, MPH. “People usually associate bloating with their abdomen being physically swollen, which we call distension, but they’re not the same thing. Bloating is a subjective feeling that nearly everyone has experienced at some point in their life, and you don’t have to be physically swollen to feel bloated.”
Fortunately there are effective solutions that are inexpensive and easy to follow that provide relief, Dr. Spiritos says. (Over-the-counter gas medication isn’t one of them, as it’s not shown to be effective.)
If you want to feel better, it’s important to get to the root of what is causing your discomfort. Dr. Spiritos breaks down five main factors that could be causing you to feel bloated.
1. Taking in too much gas.
Bringing too much gas into the gastrointestinal tract, the system of organs that break down food and liquids, can cause bloating. Excess gas often comes from a category of foods called FODMAPs, which contain carbohydrates or sugars that aren’t absorbed well by the small intestines and are quickly fermented, or broken down, by gut bacteria. This fermentation process creates a lot of gas, which can lead to bloating. (FODMAP is an acronym for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols—all carbohydrates that are thought to trigger gastrointestinal symptoms, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.)
“FODMAPs exist in many common foods, like dairy products, cereals, breads, certain vegetables and artificial sweeteners,” Dr. Spiritos says. “If someone experiencing bloating can identify foods they’re eating that are high in these carbohydrates and cut back on them, that could go a long way in reducing their symptoms. Diet is always one of the first places we check to see if adjustments can help reduce discomfort.”
Certain FODMAPs are more aggravating than others, Dr. Spiritos says. He recommends keeping a food diary to help you track which foods could be causing bloat. “It can seem overwhelming to plan your diet around FODMAPs, but there are so many options that you can still create a nuanced diet and enjoy good things while keeping your symptoms under control.”
Drinking carbonated beverages can also contribute to excess gas because the carbon dioxide can turn into gas in your stomach.
2. Taking in too much air.
Swallowing too much air can cause you to feel bloated. Anything that causes you to take in more air than usual, including drinking through a straw, chewing gum or wearing poorly fitted dentures, can contribute to symptoms of bloat, Dr. Spiritos says. Drinking without a straw, switching to mints instead of gum and seeing your dentist to adjust denture fit, if necessary, can help cut down on air intake.
“If you suck in too much air, it has to go somewhere,” Dr. Spiritos says. “It will naturally pass into your stomach. You can try to belch it back up, but oftentimes it moves down the intestinal tract, which can contribute to bloating and distention.”
He also says patients with obstructive sleep apnea who use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine often experience bloating. The CPAP machine, which is meant to provide air at a high enough pressure to keep your airway open, can cause air to get into the gastrointestinal tract, which can lead to bloating. If you suspect your CPAP machine might be to blame, keep wearing it, but talk to your doctor who prescribed the device to troubleshoot the issue.
3. Excess creation of gas in the body.
There are medical conditions that create excess gas, Dr. Spiritos says. This includes undiagnosed celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is consumed, and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). People with SIBO have higher than normal amounts of bacteria in their intestines. When they digest food, their gut bacteria cause it to be quickly fermented, which can lead to bloating and often distension, Dr. Spiritos says. Treatment for celiac disease or SIBO can reduce the discomfort of bloating.
4. Poor removal of gas.
Sometimes there is too much gas in the gastrointestinal tract because the body can’t dispose of it properly. Usually belching or passing gas can help, but if gas is trapped, it could be because of an obstruction such as too much stool, Dr. Spiritos says.
“If you have a lot of stool that you can’t pass, having regular bowel movements can reduce the sensation of bloating. That’s a simple plumbing issue,” Dr. Spiritos says. Taking care of any existing constipation, by drinking lots of water and getting enough fiber, often cures bloating.
5. Hypersensitivity to gas in the gastrointestinal tract.
Some people have normal amounts of gas in their gastrointestinal tract, but they just happen to be more sensitive to it, Dr. Spiritos says. This often happens with irritable bowel syndrome: The nerves send pain signals to the brain, despite everything being normal. In this case, dietary changes and medications can help reduce symptoms.
When to Call a Doctor for Bloating
Dr. Spiritos says if you experience any concerning symptoms such as pain, change in stool form, bleeding or unexplained weight loss, contact a doctor promptly.
People at a higher risk of more severe bloating include people who have experienced the following:
- Abdominal surgeries (bariatric surgery, small bowel surgery and bowel resection)
- A gastrointestinal diagnosis like celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease
- Abdominal radiation
If you fall into one of the above categories, Dr. Spiritos says you’re more likely to require medical treatment if you experience bloating, so be sure to contact your provider.
Feeling bloated and looking for relief? Find a gastroenterologist near you.