Do you ever feel like your stomach is too full or swollen? You may be bloated.
Bloating is a common problem, even in people who are otherwise healthy. About 1 in 7 Americans experience bloating on a weekly basis. It’s not always easy to figure out what’s causing bloating. Continue reading to learn more about what causes bloating and what it means.
What Is Bloating?
If you’re bloated, you may feel like your stomach is too full or tight. It can happen when your gastrointestinal system (GI system or digestive system) is full of gas or liquid. Your stomach may also look swollen or distended.
When you’re bloated, you can experience many different symptoms, including:
- Abdominal (stomach) pain
- Swollen stomach
- Flatulence (farting)
- Belching (burping)
- Stomach cramps
What Does Bloating Mean? — 6 Possible Causes of Bloating
Bloating can be a symptom of many different conditions.
A 2023 study published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology found that women and people with certain GI diseases were more likely to experience bloating. There are many other conditions that can cause bloating. Six possible causes of bloating are discussed below.
1. You Have Gas
You can feel bloated when you have excess gas trapped in your digestive system. Common symptoms of gas include belching, bloating, and flatulence.
It’s normal to have symptoms of excess gas, especially after eating. Eating and drinking can cause you to swallow small amounts of air along with your food and drink. Certain activities may increase how much air you swallow, such as:
- Chewing gum or sucking on hard candy
- Drinking carbonated drinks
- Eating or drinking too fast
- Wearing loose-fitting dentures
The type of food you eat can also cause excess gas. Carbohydrates (such as sugar, starch, and fiber) can cause gas when the bacteria in your intestines begin to break it down. You may notice that you have more gas when you eat more carbohydrates.
Other foods that can cause excess gas include:
- Legumes (such as beans, lentils, and soybeans)
- Green leafy vegetables
- Dairy products
- Sugar substitutes (such as sorbitol)
- Carbonated drinks
2. You Have a Food Intolerance
A food intolerance can occur if your digestive system has difficulty digesting (breaking down) certain foods.
A food intolerance is different from a food allergy, which is caused by your immune system. Food allergies have different symptoms than food intolerance, including rash, difficulty breathing, or swelling of your mouth and lips.
If you have a health condition that makes it difficult for you to break down certain foods, you may have increased gas and symptoms of bloating. Common food intolerances include lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance, and fructose intolerance. Other food chemicals that may cause symptoms of food intolerance include:
- Histamine — found in wine and cheese
- Caffeine — found in coffee, tea, and some soft drinks
- Sulfites — found in beer and wine
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG) — found in ripe fruit, cured meat, and some savory foods
Lactose intolerance is the most common type of food intolerance. It’s estimated that about 68% of the world’s population has lactose intolerance.
Lactose is a carbohydrate (sugar) found in milk. It can be found in any product made from milk and some processed foods. You may be intolerant to lactose if your body doesn’t make enough of an enzyme (a type of protein) called lactase that helps you break down lactose.
If you have lactose intolerance, you may experience symptoms of bloating within a few minutes or hours after eating lactose.
If you have fructose intolerance, you have difficulty absorbing and digesting fructose. It’s estimated that about 40% of people in the Western hemisphere have trouble digesting fructose.
Fructose is a type of sugar commonly found in fruit. People with an intolerance can experience symptoms of bloating shortly after eating fructose. People with severe fructose intolerance can experience serious complications, such as kidney damage, liver damage, coma, and death.
If you feel bloated or sick after eating food with gluten, you may have a gluten intolerance. It’s estimated that about 6% of Americans have a gluten intolerance.
Gluten is a protein found in some grains, including wheat, rye, and barley. If you have a gluten intolerance, you can experience other symptoms in addition to bloating, such as:
- Anxiety and depression
- Difficulty concentrating
- Joint pain
- Nausea and vomiting
3. You’re Constipated
You may feel bloated if you’re constipated. Constipation is defined as having fewer than 3 bowel movements (pooping) per week. However, everyone’s bowel habits are different, and you may feel constipated if you have more or fewer bowel movements than 3 per week.
Constipation happens when your colon (also known as your large intestine) absorbs too much water from your stool (poop). When this happens, your stool becomes harder and more difficult to pass. The buildup of stool in your colon can cause your abdomen to appear larger and cause abdominal pain.
Constipation is one of the most common digestive complaints in the United States (US). Some people are more likely to experience constipation, including:
- Pregnant women
- Older adults
- People who take some medications or supplements
- People with gastrointestinal disease and other chronic medical conditions
You may also be more likely to become constipated if you:
- Don’t eat enough fiber
- Don’t drink enough water
- Don’t get enough exercise
- Have changes in your daily routine
- Are stressed
- Resist the urge to go poop when you feel it
There are ways to treat constipation when you have it.
4. You’re About to Start Your Menstrual Cycle
It’s common to feel bloated before and during your menstrual cycle (period). Three out of four women experience bloating around their period.
Bloating may occur around the time of your period because of certain female hormones. For example, estrogen can cause fluid retention — when your body holds on to water, causing swelling. If swelling occurs in your abdomen, it can make you feel bloated. Estrogen and progesterone can also interact with your digestive tract and cause increased gas in your intestines.
Another reason you may feel bloated before your period is that your uterus actually increases in volume just before your period starts.
5. You Take a Medication That Causes Bloating
Medications can cause bloating by causing gas in your digestive tract or causing constipation.
You may feel bloated if you take an antacid to treat heartburn. Fiber supplements can also cause increased gas. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that isn’t digested. Because of this, the bacteria in your intestines may produce more gas when you take a fiber supplement. If you take too much of a fiber supplement or don’t drink enough water, it could cause constipation, which can also make you feel bloated.
Medications that can cause constipation include:
- Opioid pain medications — such as hydrocodone (Vicodin) or oxycodone (Oxycontin)
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve)
- Antidepressants — such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like sertraline (Zoloft) and fluoxetine (Prozac) and tricyclic antidepressants like amitriptyline (Elavil)
- Iron supplements — available in many forms over the counter (OTC)
- Antihistamines — such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- Seizure medications — such as phenytoin (Dilantin) and gabapentin (Neurontin)
- Nausea medications — such as ondansetron (Zofran)
6. You Have a Chronic Medical Condition
Bloating is a possible symptom of several different chronic medical conditions.
People living with GI disease are more likely to experience bloating than the general population. People with GI disease have difficulty with digestion, which can cause symptoms that lead to bloating, such as excess gas and constipation.
GI diseases associated with bloating include:
- Celiac disease — a condition caused by an immune reaction to eating gluten
- Inflammatory bowel disease — a group of conditions that cause inflammation in your intestines, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Irritable bowel syndrome — a condition that causes intestinal symptoms such as gas, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation
People with liver disease can feel and look bloated if they develop ascites.
Ascites is a condition where fluid builds up in the abdomen. The fluid builds up between two layers of tissue called the peritoneum that lines the organs in the abdomen.
While liver disease is the most common cause of ascites, it can also be caused by heart failure, kidney failure, an infection, or cancer.
Certain cancers can make you feel bloated if they affect the organs in your abdomen. Examples of cancers that may cause bloating include:
- Ovarian cancer
- Uterine cancer
- Colon cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Stomach cancer
If you’re experiencing symptoms of bloating due to cancer, you will likely have other symptoms, such as fatigue or unexpected weight loss.
For gynecological cancers, like ovarian and uterine cancer, you may experience unusual vaginal bleeding or pelvic pain. Colon cancer can also cause blood in your stool. If you have stomach cancer, you may experience difficulty swallowing.
Talk to your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. Additionally, regular cancer screening can help you detect some cancers before symptoms occur. Talk to your doctor about which screening tests are appropriate for you.
When Should You See Your Doctor for Bloating?
Bloating is a common problem, so it can be hard to know when you should see your doctor about this symptom. Almost 60% of people who experience bloating don’t seek medical advice. However, bloating can be a symptom of another, more serious medical condition.
Contact your doctor if you experience bloating that:
- Lasts longer than one week
- Keeps getting worse
- Is painful
- Comes with other symptoms like vomiting, fever, or blood in your stool
How Is Bloating Diagnosed?
If you experience persistent bloating, your doctor may ask you questions about your history, perform a physical exam, and order different medical tests to find the cause of your bloating.
During a physical exam, your doctor will feel the organs of your abdomen to look for anything unusual. Based on your symptoms, your doctor may order additional tests for possible causes of bloating, such as blood tests, stool tests, and tests for food intolerances.
Your doctor may want to examine the inside of your GI tract. Imaging tests such as an ultrasound or X-ray can create a picture of the inside of your body. Your doctor can also insert a small flexible tube with a lighted camera into your GI tract. When it’s inserted through your mouth into your stomach, it’s called a gastroscopy. When it’s inserted into your colon through your anus, it’s called a colonoscopy. These tests can be used to help diagnose GI diseases and some types of cancer.
How Can You Manage Bloating?
The treatment for bloating depends on what’s causing your bloating symptoms. If you experience persistent bloating, you should talk to your doctor to find out the cause. There are some ways you can treat bloating at home, including:
- Simethicone (Gas-X) — this medication helps relieve bloating by popping gas bubbles in your GI tract and is available OTC by itself or in combination with antacids
- Antacids — antacids help decrease stomach acid and help you pass gas more easily and are available OTC
- Probiotics — good bacteria in probiotics can help restore balance to your gut bacteria and reduce gas
- Herbal tea — herbal teas such as peppermint, chamomile, or turmeric can help aid digestion
- Peppermint oil — peppermint oil can relax your stomach muscles to help pass gas
If you’re experiencing food-related bloating, making changes to your diet may help your symptoms.
It can help to cut back on foods that cause excess gas.
If you have a lactose intolerance and can’t avoid dairy products, taking a lactase supplement may help decrease your symptoms. Your doctor and a registered dietitian can help you choose the best diet based on your symptoms and intolerances.
If your bloating is related to constipation, taking steps to prevent constipation may improve your symptoms. Some tips for reducing constipation include:
- Increase the amount of fiber you eat
- Stay physically active
- Drink plenty of water
- Don’t ignore the urge to poop
Talk to your doctor about what’s causing constipation and bloating to find the best treatment for you.
Chronic Disease-Related Bloating
If you have a chronic disease that causes bloating, appropriate treatment for that disease should help improve your symptoms. Talk to your doctor about all of the symptoms that bother you and discuss the best treatment option for you.
Additionally, regular follow-up with your doctor can help discover some problems before they happen.
Articles authored by Dr. Connor are intended to facilitate awareness about health and wellness matters generally and are not a substitute for professional medical attention or advice from your own healthcare practitioner, which is dependent on your detailed personal medical condition and history. You should always speak with your own qualified healthcare practitioner about any information in any articles you may read here before choosing to act or not act upon such information. Read Dr. Connor’s original version of this article posted on northwestpharmacy.com.