Ever eaten a meal and then felt (and looked) about six-months pregnant? Bloating is a common digestive complaint that affects most people at one time or another. And it’s not just about appearances. Bloating can be uncomfortable and even painful until it calms down a bit or is resolved.
When you experience regular bouts of bloating, there’s likely a reason behind it.
Most cases of bloating come down to something you ate or a digestive condition. As a nutritionist, I can tell you some of the most common causes and how to fix this frustrating condition.
A common, yet little known cause of bloating is constipation. Most people assume that if they go to the bathroom regularly, they’re not constipated. That’s not always the case. You can have regular bowel movements and still show signs of constipation if:
- You regularly have small bowel movements
- They are hard, small, or pebble-like
- You have to strain or force excessively to produce a bowel movement
- You are dehydrated
Ideally, going to the bathroom should feel effortless. Your intestines should give you the signal, and you should be able to go. Many factors can influence how well this process works (or doesn’t work). Stress, too many processed foods, excessive reliance on laxatives, or too little fiber can all lead to a recurring problem with poor bowel elimination and regular bouts of bloating after meals.
How to fix: Don’t just take laxatives and expect that will solve the issue. It’s important to address constipation and intestinal health from a whole-body perspective. Start by boosting your water intake and eating more fiber. Add a fiber supplement if you don’t get enough (start with one-fourth of the recommended dose and work your way up). Don’t ignore when your body sends you “go” signals. No one likes going in public restrooms, but ignoring the urge can result in chronic constipation and suppression of the way your intestinal muscles are supposed to work.
02. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome is a collection of symptoms that include bloating, gas, and intestinal cramping. Sometimes the result can be bouncing between constipation and diarrhea. You can experience IBS for long or short periods of time, in response to other health conditions, or as a result of stress. If your intestines seem moody and you never quite know what you’re going to expect—but you have regular bouts of bloating—consider the other factors going on with your health. Excessive stress, poor diet choices, lack of sleep, or even seemingly unrelated issues like thyroid problems or hormone changes can all contribute to IBS.
How to fix: Depending on the severity and length, it might be time to check in with your doctor. Even if you feel squeamish about mentioning them, it’s always good to share your digestive symptoms with your healthcare provider. Keep in mind that your doctor won’t run unnecessary tests, and if they decide a colonoscopy (for example) is a good idea, it’s best to rule out anything serious. Most doctors will try low-intervention methods first for signs of IBS, like diet modification, so even if you wish to avoid a larger procedure, don’t be afraid to speak with your healthcare provider about your intestinal woes.
03. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO, is a condition where bacteria that belong in the large intestine migrate into the small intestine. While most people think of the large and small intestines interchangeably, they have noticeably different functions. The small intestine is primarily the site for digestion and absorption, while the large intestine houses the microbiome, produces some nutrients, and eliminates waste.
When the bacteria from the large intestine, even the “good” type, ends up in the small intestine, it can lead to severe bloating and discomfort. SIBO is more common in people who already have other intestinal disorders, have recently had surgery, or have problems properly digesting foods. Excessive use of antacids, for example, can result in poorly broken down food exiting the stomach and staying in the small intestine too long. This can contribute to the development of bacterial imbalance.
How to fix: Because SIBO is a situation where bacteria is in an area it does not belong, most doctors will rely on short courses of antibiotics to kill the bacteria and get it out of the small intestine. However, other doctors will use certain strains of probiotics to address the small intestinal imbalance, including bacillus coagulans or lactobacillus casei. SIBO isn’t easy to correct quickly, which is why working with a dietary professional is important. It’s very hard to self-treat (or diagnose) this condition.
04. Food allergy or sensitivity
It’s also possible for adults to have issues with certain foods and not know it. Bloating, gas, or digestive discomfort are all common signs of mild allergies or food sensitivities.
Frequent triggers include:
How to fix: If you suspect that one or more of these foods could be problematic, try cutting it out for a week or two, and note whether bloating improves. Add it back, and if it’s a problem, you’ll probably feel bloated and uncomfortable almost immediately. The exception here is Celiac disease. If you have other autoimmune conditions or any family history of autoimmunity, consider having your doctor test you for Celiac disease before eliminating gluten. After you’ve gone gluten-free, you won’t be able to get an accurate diagnosis for Celiac, even if you have it.
05. Eating too many gassy foods or drinking too many carbonated beverages
While this one is probably the most straightforward, it doesn’t happen to everyone. Eating too many foods that can have gas-producing results in the body can lead to chronic bloating problems. These foods can include:
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Onions and garlic
- Sugar alcohol
- Carbonated beverages
- Starchy carbs
- Highly processed foods
- White sugar
- Corn syrup or derivatives
How to fix: If you suspect that maybe your diet is just too high in bloat-heavy foods, try eliminating most from the list above and focus more on leafy greens, fresh fruits, poultry and beef, seafood, and easier-to-digest vegetables like sweet potatoes, green beans, sweet peas, carrots, and parsnips. If your bloating improves during this challenge, you might just need extra enzymes to digest gassy foods, or your digestive system just may get easily overwhelmed. Try balancing them with non-gassy foods and eating less frequently.
While finding the source of your bloating problem is always the best path for your overall health, there are some things that can help mitigate bloating symptoms no matter the cause. Try eating smaller meals, chewing food more thoroughly, and not drinking excessive amounts of liquid with your meals. Walking after eating can help speed digestion and reduce symptoms, as well. Lastly, taking a digestive enzyme supplement before each meal can help reduce bloating. Whatever the cause of your bloating, the good news is that with the right approach, it doesn’t have to be a part of your life forever.