Better Me

Here’s Why Your Belly Feels Bloated, and What to Do About It

You probably know the feeling. Your clothes feel tight around the waist, and you look like you gained 10 pounds in your last meal. You have abdominal bloating and are uncomfortable. Veronika Panah, MD, a gastroenterologist at Banner Health Clinic in Colorado, said that everyone has a different sensation of bloating, but most people describe it as feeling full or distended. Your belly might feel big, tight or under pressure. “Some women say they feel seven months pregnant, and some men say they pass more gas,” Dr. Panah said.

We asked Dr. Panah to answer some questions about this common but unpleasant condition.

What causes bloating?

Most of the time, you can blame your own gut bacteria for bloating. Inside your digestive tract, you have trillions of bacteria—they make up your microbiome. It’s their job to break down and ferment or process the food you eat. When these bacteria get disrupted or you eat certain foods, they cause a buildup of intestinal gas. This gas makes you feel bloated. 

You can feel bloated when you swallow air. This can happen when you:

  • Drink with a straw
  • Chew gum
  • Talk while you’re eating
  • Drink carbonated beverages, including bubbly waters

You may also feel bloated if you:

  • Are constipated
  • Have gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Chron's disease or ulcerative colitis (UC)
  • Gain weight
  • Eat foods that are hard for your body to process, such as dairy products, fructose, sorbitol or undigestible fruits and vegetables

Due to the elevation and pressure changes, you may also feel bloated when you travel on an airplane. Dr. Panah said, “Maybe hold off on having carbonated drinks on an airplane, so you don’t land feeling like a hot air balloon!”

How can you prevent bloating?

“Your diet is a major contributor to bloating,” Dr. Panah said. So, skip the straws and the gum and scale back on your flavored seltzers and diet sodas. Eating more slowly might also keep you from ingesting air along with your food.

Pay attention to what you eat and how it makes you feel. If you notice that milk, ice cream, cheese or other dairy products lead to gas and bloating, you may have lactose intolerance. You can scale back on these foods or take an over-the-counter product that contains the lactase enzyme, such as Lactaid, before you eat them.

A diet called the low FODMAP diet might also help. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, which you’ll find in foods that produce gas, such as cabbage, broccoli, wheat, brussels sprouts and beans.

How can you treat bloating?

When you feel bloated, you may just want to curl up on the couch. But walking around a bit can help the gas dissipate. You can also try antacids or peppermint. And if constipation is causing your bloating, you can take a laxative.

Some common over-the-counter (OTC) medications that can help relieve bloating and gas include:

  • Simethicone: relieves gas by speeding up the passage of gas through the intestine.
  • Alpha-galactosidase enzyme (Beano®): helps prevent gas when taken right before eating.
  • Laxatives relieve constipation by promoting bowl movements. However, there are different types of laxatives – such as bulk-forming laxatives, osmotic laxatives, and stimulant laxatives – which can work in different ways, so be sure to talk to your pharmacist or physician to decide which type is right for you.
  • Docusate sodium is a stool softener used to prevent constipation or work with a laxative to make stool easier to pass.
  • Loperamide can relieve diarrhea.
  • Bismuth subsalicylate relieves diarrhea as well as symptoms from overeating, including heartburn, nausea, gas and upset stomach.

When should you seek medical care for bloating?

Most of the time, bloating will clear up within a few hours. If it lasts more than a day or two, talk to your doctor. You should also seek medical care if you have symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, severe abdominal pain, weight loss or fever along with bloating.

“A gastroenterologist can evaluate these symptoms and look for malabsorption (a digestive disorder that prevents the body from effectively absorbing nutrients), overgrowth of bacteria or a gastrointestinal disorder,” Dr. Panah said. Conditions like these need medical treatment.

The bottom line

That full, distended feeling you get when you’re bloated is common, and it’s usually not a cause for concern. Bloating usually passes quickly and paying attention to what you eat can help prevent it. If you are having problems with bloating or any other digestive issues:

Save your spot for a virtual or in-person urgent care visit.
Schedule and appointment with a primary care provider.
Schedule an appointment with a gastroenterologist.

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