When people talk about feeling bloated, they’re typically referring to a very common sensation: a feeling of fullness, tightness, or pressure in the abdomen. This sensation is so common, in fact, that it is thought to be a symptom in over 90% of cases of functional gastrointestinal disorders. Of course, it is also possible to experience bloating even without having a specific GI tract condition. This can make it especially difficult to determine the cause of bloating or even whether there might be more than one cause.
Causes of Bloating
It’s natural to wonder about the cause of any kind of symptom or the reason behind something feeling wrong with our body. Even when we think we know the cause, an additional symptom or a new version of the experience can be confusing and disorienting. In the case of bloating, one of the most common causes is accumulated gas in the digestive tract. It is the underlying cause of that gas buildup that is more difficult to determine, but below are some causes and contributing factors:
- Overeating: The cause of intestinal gas that is probably most familiar is simply eating too much, too fast. This is a combination of swallowing a lot of air and physical space being taken up by food. The resulting bloated feeling can be more or less extreme depending on what you ate.
- Diet: You don’t even have to overeat for food intolerances to play a role in bloating. Indeed, it is the consumption of certain foods that is behind most instances of acute bloating. Examples include: beans, lentils, brussels sprouts, dairy products, high-fiber foods, and candies with artificial sweeteners like sorbitol.
- Carbonated Drinks: When drinking significant amounts of soda, sparkling water, and other carbonated beverages, the gas content can build up and cause bloating.
- Chewing Gum: Though you might not expect it, chewing gum can also cause gas to accumulate in your digestive system. This happens because the act of chewing gum leads to a lot of air being swallowed.
- Constipation: Whether because of another condition or various lifestyle factors, constipation can play a role in bloating; in fact, bloating is often listed as a symptom of constipation. When bowel motility is slow and stool sits in the colon too long, it can back up and create a physical obstruction or simply create more gas and result in bloating.
- Hormones: One of the best examples of the impact of hormones is a woman’s menstrual cycle. Bloating is common before and during a menstruation period, and it can result from water retention due to estrogen or slower bowel motility due to progesterone. Estrogen and progesterone can also cause visible abdominal distention.
- Gastrointestinal Disorders: Conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, and colitis all include bloating as a possible symptom.
- Celiac Disease: This chronic autoimmune disorder affects the small intestine and is generally caused by a reaction to gluten. Symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, and bloating.
While the above represents many common reasons for bloating, it isn’t an exhaustive list. For the most part, the underlying cause of bloating is either due to a digestive issue or a hormonal response. These are usually mild cases and resolve on their own or are mitigated by treatment for the condition the bloating is a result of. If bloating becomes chronic or continues to worsen, it could be a sign of a more serious medical condition. In such cases, however, there will typically be other, more serious symptoms.
How to Find Relief
Since bloating is usually a temporary, mild annoyance, medical attention isn’t required. Instead, treatment primarily involves finding relief from the pressure and abdominal pain. The type of relief that will work best depends on the severity of the bloating and its root cause. In some situations, it might require an appointment with a doctor who specializes in gastroenterology. For most people though, any of a number of home remedies can be sufficient for easing the discomfort:
- Tea: Herbal teas, like peppermint, chamomile, and ginger, have been shown to aid the digestive process and control the amount of excess gas produced. Some teas can also help with water retention and related abdominal distension.
- Peppermint Oil: Though current research is still inconclusive, there is some evidence that peppermint oil is a natural antispasmodic agent that can help relax the muscles of the digestive system and make it easier to pass gas (flatus).
- Antacids: Antacids are designed to neutralize stomach acid and bring relief from heartburn and other gastrointestinal inflammation. A primary active ingredient in antacids is simethicone, an anti-foaming agent that has also been shown to reduce bloating and other discomfort related to intestinal gas.
- Magnesium: Magnesium is an important mineral that all humans need, but there is now some evidence to suggest that magnesium supplements may help reduce bloating.
- Probiotics: Researchers are still learning more and more about the microbiome in our digestive tract, but it is already clear that maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria is important for health. Probiotics are supplements that aim to improve gut bacteria health; though research on probiotics is still in a nascent stage, early evidence is promising that these supplements can improve bloating and many other GI tract symptoms.
- Fiber: Having sufficient fiber in your diet is an important part of your digestive health because it helps maintain regular bowel motility. Over-the-counter fiber supplements and psyllium husk are both helpful for keeping you regular at the same time as reducing bloating.
- Exercise: Regular exercise has numerous short-term and long-term benefits, but one that is perhaps surprising is the impact on abdominal bloating. Both the actual physical movement and the strengthening of abdominal muscles can help gas move through the digestive tract more smoothly.
Contact Cary Gastro
Bloating is usually a minor annoyance that goes away on its own, but repeated instances can also be a sign of a larger problem. At Cary Gastroenterology, we want to be a trusted source for excellent digestive health care. If you’ve been experiencing bloating on a recurring basis, it might be time to speak with a gastroenterologist. Contact us today for more information or to request an appointment.