Stomach bloating is so common these days it’s been called an “epidemic.” With most people’s poor diets, high levels of stress, need for daily medications and exposure to various pollutants, it’s no wonder they’re suffering some sort of bloating more days than not.
While a bloated stomach is certainly uncomfortable — even embarrassing when it comes along with gas or the need to run to the bathroom — it might be a bigger deal than you’d think. Stomach bloating can sometimes signify serious health problems lurking below the surface. It’s one of the most common candida symptoms and leads to other issues like a digestive disorder, autoimmune reaction, allergy or even stomach cancer in some cases. (1)
Symptoms of a Bloated Stomach
Having a bloated stomach is different from gaining actual fat mass around your stomach, since bloating is temporary and mostly caused by air becoming stuck around your abdomen, making it distend outward. Simply put, being “bloated” is the feeling of having built-up gas in your digestive system that makes your stomach protrude uncomfortably. Some people even kid around and joke that they “look pregnant” when their abdominal bloating becomes very bad.
Luckily, in some cases, stomach bloating isn’t anything to be alarmed about. It can usually be cleared up by making some simple changes to your diet and routine, although not always. Along with feeling full, gassy and having pain in your abdomen, you should check if your bloated stomach occurs simultaneously with other symptoms throughout the body. (2) This can clue you in on what’s causing the problem and whether it might be serious enough to warrant a doctor’s visit.
When you’re feeling bloated, check for other symptoms, including:
- A fever
- Skin rashes or hives
- Watery eyes, itchy throat and other signs of allergic reaction
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Vomiting or nausea
- Blood in your urine or stool
- Unintentional weight loss
- Trouble going to the bathroom
- Pain around your lymph nodes, including in your groin, throat or armpits
- Brain fog and trouble concentrating
- Irregular periods
What Causes a Bloated Stomach?
You might be wondering what causes stomach bloating. There are dozens of different sneaky reasons you might develop a bloated stomach — allergies, hormonal imbalances, thyroid dysfunction, gut troubles and more. It might seem hard to narrow down the culprit, but the more information you can gather about your reactions to different foods and circumstances, the better idea you’ll have as to what triggers your symptoms.
Belly bloat itself is usually a problem with digestion. Making it more confusing, many different things can affect gut health, the ability to metabolize food properly and our body’s way of naturally eliminating waste. (3) Because so many different factors can contribute to stomach bloating — including some that seem totally unrelated, like sleep or stress — it’s possible to become bloated any time of the day or month.
Contrary to what most people think, bloating is not the same as carrying around extra fat mass or even “water weight.” Fluids can’t actually accumulate in your stomach, although you might be bloated and have water retention in other parts of your body (like your ankles, face and feet) while also having stomach bloating, if you have a condition that’s causing both. (4)
For many people, the cause of excessive gas in the intestines boils down to: inadequate protein digestion (causing some foods to ferment), inability to break down sugar and carbohydrates fully (certain complex sugar compounds need the presence of enzymes to be digested fully, yet people can be lacking these), and imbalances in gut bacteria. In the digestive tract, there are trillions of healthy and unhealthy bacteria that compete, and when “bad bacteria” outweigh the good for one reason or another, an imbalance can lead to abdominal bloating and excessive gas.
Start by determining if you might be dealing with an underlying health issue that can cause bloating.
10 Possible Causes of a Bloated Stomach
- Digestive disorders
- Fluid retention
- Food allergies or sensitivities
- Bowel obstruction
- Hormonal changes
1. Digestive Disorders
Most people dealing with various functional gastrointestinal disorders like IBS, ulcerative colitis and celiac disease have bloating, gas, distension and other symptoms. Some reports show that stomach bloating is experienced by 23 percent to 96 percent of people with IBS, 50 percent with functional dyspepsia and 56 percent with chronic constipation. (5)
2. Fluid Retention (Called Edema or Ascites)
Sometimes bodily fluids can be stored around the body, including near the abdomen or pelvis area, which causes excess bloating and temporary weight gain. You might also notice jewelry and clothes becoming tighter, extra swelling, and pain around joints or tightness in the skin. Fluid retention in the abdomen is known as ascites and it can be a sign of a more serious health condition. Ascites can be due to an abdominal infection, liver disease or, although rarely, even from cancer. (6) Check for other signs of liver failure or hepatitis, including yellowing of the skin (jaundice), changes in the white color of your eyes or pain in the abdomen. Stomach cancer often does not show symptoms early on; however, in addition to bloating, you may experience unintended weight loss, indigestion, nausea, vomiting blood and abdominal pain. (7)
Ever notice the day after you’ve been eating salty foods or drinking alcohol that you become dehydrated and bloated as a result? It might seem counterintuitive, but the more water you drink (or consume in water-heavy foods) and better you stay hydrated, the less bloating you’re likely to deal with. Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances both halt digestion and make it hard to “stay regular.”
When your body tries to recover from dehydration, it holds on to excess water to prevent the situation from happening again. Plus, you might find yourself becoming constipated. This means when you do finally drink more fluids, you’re likely to store them around your midsection and feel extra puffy.
This might be the most obvious reason you have a bloated stomach — you need to go to the bathroom! Constipation can cause stool to remain in the intestines, leaving you with a hard-feeling stomach, pain, discomfort and gas. The biggest reasons for constipation include eating too little fiber, not drinking enough water, being too sedentary/avoiding physical activity and stress.
5. Food Allergies or Sensitivities
Often, food allergies, sensitives or intolerances (like lactose intolerance) are common reasons for gas and bloating. The foods that cause gas include dairy products, gluten-containing foods (most bread, pasta, rolls, cereals, etc.) and certain kinds of carbohydrates called FODMAPs. (8)
There are dozens of other possible food allergies (like shellfish, nuts and eggs), but you’re likely to know if this is what you’re reacting to since symptoms are usually more noticeable. FODMAPs can be tricky to rule out since there are so many different kinds and everyone is unique in terms of tolerability. An elimination diet can help you pinpoint which foods might cause bloating (like apples or avocados, for example) because they’re not being properly broken down and digested.
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is caused by high levels of abnormal bacteria living in the digestive tract, usually in the bowel (dysbacteriosis), where they can accumulate after taking antibiotics or due to inflammation and poor digestion. Normally, different strains of bacteria are in proper balance in the colon, which helps with absorption of essential nutrients. But when harmful bacteria invade and take over, damage of the stomach lining can occur along with numerous symptoms. Some foods are capable of causing SIBO symptoms and related sensitivities in the digestive tract, including FODMAPS, which in some cases can ferment abnormally during digestion.
You can become bloated and swollen, or develop ascites if you’re dealing with an infection because this triggers inflammation levels to rise, caused by an elevated white blood cell count around the pelvic, urinary and gastrointestinal organs. Check for signs of a fever, redness and pain, and swollen lymph nodes, which usually accompany a serious infection.
8. Bowel obstruction
Sometimes a severely bloated stomach (though it isn’t actually your stomach that’s bloated)— along with constipation, nausea and vomiting — is due to a bowel obstruction, which can be caused by scar tissue or a tumor in either the small intestine or the colon, among other causes. When these grow and press against the bowel, the bowels become blocked and hold in fluid and stool. You’ll likely know this is what you’re dealing with since it’s usually very painful and stops you from going to the bathroom normally. It’s important to see your doctor and get medical treatment right away if you suspect a bowel obstruction as this condition can lead to a ruptured bowel, which is a potentially fatal medical emergency.
9. Hormonal changes
PMS is known to cause a bloated abdomen and digestive issues, since it makes you prone to constipation and fluid retention. This is common and not too much of a concern unless you notice other serious symptoms like an irregular menstrual cycle, fibroids or severe cramping. Having a bloated stomach before or during your period can differ depending on your cycle, and some women experience severe water retention for up to two weeks.
Why do women experience bloating before, during and after their menstrual cycles? During the early days of a woman’s cycle — sometimes called the follicular stage — estrogen levels rise while the uterine lining thickens. Bloating can also become stronger as ovulation occurs and more fluids and blood build up. Normally when a woman has her period, she experiences shedding of the excess fluid, tissue and blood, which usually results in the bloating going away.
While it’s not the cause of most people’s bloating, one sign of cancer in the colon or uterus is bloating. This is why it’s important to talk to a doctor if you’ve tried all other ways of reducing bloating and digestive issues but still can’t seem to pinpoint what’s causing your symptoms.
The Best and Worst Foods for Bloating
Your diet plays a huge part in regulating how much air and poop is trapped inside your digestive tract. To keep things “flowing” smoothly, you want to make sure to eat a high-fiber diet, aiming for about 25–30 grams every day or even more. This isn’t too difficult when you eat plenty of whole foods, including veggies, fruits, nuts and seeds, legumes and ancient grains. It can certainly help you to track your symptoms after eating certain foods known to cause bloating, but remember that bloating is caused by your entire lifestyle, not just the food on your plate.
Some of the best foods for helping to battle stomach bloating include: (9)
- Probiotics: “Good bacteria” called probiotics act like friendly gut bugs in your digestive tract, killing off bad bacteria that can trigger digestive issues and reactions. You can take probiotic supplements, but acquiring them from natural probiotic foods like kimchi, saurerkraut, yogurt, kefir and kombucha is also beneficial.
- Raw dairy: In the case of dairy, I always recommend consuming raw dairy as opposed to the conventional kind sold in supermarkets, which has been pasteurized/homogenized. Manufacturing processes can kill enzymes that are needed for proper digestion, even to the point that some people who think they have symptoms of lactose intolerance can consume raw dairy products without having negative reactions. It also helps to avoid flavored yogurts, which have artificial ingredients, to consume aged/raw cheeses instead of soft cheese, and to consume kefir/yogurt instead of milk, which are lower in lactose.
- Water-rich fruits and veggies: Veggies and fruits that provide water, key electrolytes and beneficial enzymes are your best friend when it comes to relieving stomach bloating naturally. Try eating more raw or cooked leafy greens, cucumber, celery, fennel, artichoke, melon, berries, steamed veggies and cultured/fermented vegetables.
- Herbs, spices and teas: Natural digestion-soothing herbs like ginger, dandelion, aloe vera and fennel have been used for thousands of years to soothe an uncomfortable belly. Many herbs act like diuretics and help the body release extra fluid, while some, like ginger, can also help the stomach release its contents and relax the muscles in the digestive tract, which relieves constipation. Try eating fresh-ground herbs of all kinds (parsley, oregano, rosemary, etc.), fresh peeled ginger root, aloe vera juice, herbal teas or using essential oils. Don’t forget that bone broth and green tea are also anti-inflammatory and great choices for promoting gut health.
Now that you know what you should be eating, let’s look at some of the foods that might be making your bloating even worse. (10) In her blog post, “12 Flat Belly Tips: How to Debloat Fast,” Dr. Alissa Rumsey, a nationally recognized registered dietician, suggests avoiding the following foods to help battle bloat. (11) Each person’s reaction to foods differs, and this isn’t an inclusive list. But more often than not, some of these foods might be the culprit: (12)
- Sugar and sweetened snacks: Sugar easily ferments in the gut, can contribute to candida overgrowth and promotes inflammation.
- Most dairy products: These include flavored yogurts with sugar and artificial ingredients, but also other kinds since modern-day manufacturing processes can remove important enzymes in dairy.
- Refined grains and grain products: Gluten is difficult to digest for many people, and so are corn, oats and other grains in some cases.
- In some cases difficult-to-digest veggies like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, onion and even garlic: These contain sulfur and certain types of FODMAP carbohydrates.
- Beans and legumes, which can promote gas
- Carbonated drinks
- Chewing gum
- In some cases, certain types of fermentable fruit, including apples, peaches/other stone fruit and avocados can cause bloating.
- Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols: These include aspartame, sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol.
Other Tips and Supplements That Can Help Fight Bloating
- Talk to your doctor.
- Get some exercise.
- Drink enough water.
- Reduce stress.
1. Talk to Your Doctor
Because so many different disorders, factors and illnesses can cause a bloated stomach, it’s a good idea to have some tests run by your doctor if you can’t figure out the underlying issue. There isn’t one diagnostic test for determining the cause of bloating, but your doctor might decide to gather more information by running tests such as: stool analysis, blood test, ultrasound to check for blockages, test to check for transit follow-through, enema and gastric emptying tests, esophageal manometry, breath test, endoscopy or colonoscopy with biopsies.
2. Get Some Exercise
Being active helps your digestive system function optimally, since it can fight constipation, keep circulation moving and move lymphatic fluid throughout your body, which essentially helps you “detox.” Try to get the most benefits from exercise by doing something active most days of the week for at least 30–60 minutes. And skip the sugary sports drinks afterward!
Wondering if your workout can ever be make you more bloated? In some cases it can, especially if you overdo it. Overtraining causes the body to go into a stressful state, which causes the the adrenal glands to release more of the stress hormone cortisol. (13) Make sure your exercise routine supports your overall health and makes you feel better, not the opposite, causing disturbed fluid levels, poor digestion and added stress.
3. Drink Enough Water
To make sure fiber can do its job correctly, you also want to drink enough water to beat bloating. (14) There’s no magic number that is going to be the right amount for you, but start by having at least six to eight glasses a day. Staying hydrated is essential for beating bloating, but when it comes to beverage choices, choose wisely.
Carbonated drinks, especially if they’re loaded with artificial ingredients and sweeteners, can cause bloating to become even worse. Alcohol can also make you bloated, and caffeinated drinks, too, for some people. Your best bet is plain water, water infused with fresh fruit slices or herbs (like lemon, grapefruit, basil, etc.), or herbal tea.
4. Reduce Stress
Ever notice how when you’re nervous, tired, sad or overwhelmed, your digestion is a total mess? Stress and anxiety impact digestion in a big way. That’s because your gut and your brain communicate very closely via the vagus nerve, aka your “gut-brain-connection.” Within the lining of your gastrointestinal tract lives a network of circuitry tissue that communicates via hormonal and chemical messages to your central nervous system, called the enteric nervous system (ENS). Your brain triggers the ENS to produce enzymes, saliva and secretions to help with digestion, along with controlling hormones responsible for your appetite.
Being anxious or sad can cause changes in this line of communication. Your brain then diverts attention away from proper digestion in an effort to conserve energy and use it elsewhere. High amounts of stress increase cortisol levels, which can alter blood sugar levels and change the way that other hormones are secreted, sometimes causing you to become overly hungry, constipated and to store fluids.
On top of this, being stressed doesn’t make it very easy to eat a healing diet and instead usually leaves you reaching for comfort foods that commonly trigger bloating. Combine a sluggish metabolism and digestive system with too many heavy foods, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. The solution? Do what you can to practice mindful eating and to lower stress however possible, including exercise, meditation, prayer and spending more time doing things you love.
From the sound of it, you might think leaky gut only affects the digestive system, but in reality it can affect more. Because Leaky Gut is so common, and such an enigma, I’m offering a free webinar on all things leaky gut. Click here to learn more about the webinar.
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