Feeling uncomfortably full? Bloating is normal and it happens to everyone. However, dealing with it can be unpleasant. What is bloating exactly and why does it happen?
Bloating is a sensation of fullness or tightness in the abdomen, which is often due to excess gas or fluid in the gastrointestinal tract, Dr. Anju Malieckal, a board-certified gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Hospital—Brooklyn, tells TODAY.com. This can cause the belly to distend or "balloon out" beyond its normal size, she adds.
What causes bloating?
Excess gas in the digestive tract can be caused by swallowing too much air, which often occurs when a person eats too fast, says Dr. Malieckal. It can also result from a digestive issue or the contents of the intestines producing too much methane or hydrogen gas, Dr. Christine Lee, a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells TODAY.com.
The most common culprit of excess abdominal gas is constipation or not emptying the bowels completely, says Dr. Lee.
"When stool is left behind ... since our body temperature is 98.6 degrees (Fahrenheit) that's a great climate for fermentation to occur, so you start producing gas and if you can't pass it, it becomes trapped and causes the belly to distend and feel bloated," says Lee.
Food sensitivities or intolerances (such as lactose intolerance) can also cause excess gas production and inflammation, the experts note.
Bloating may be a sign of bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine (also known as SIBO), which occurs when the bad bacteria in the intestines outnumbers the good bacteria, says Malieckal.
Bloating may also be related to stress or hormones. Menstruation can cause fluid retention in the abdomen, says Malieckal, which can cause bloating and discomfort. The drop in progesterone before a period can also slow digestion and result in constipation, Lee says.
“There are a number of medications that cause bloating, and then malignancies, like gastric cancer or ovarian cancer,” says Malieckal.
If bloating doesn't go away or it's accompanied by a decrease in appetite, vomiting or unintentional weight loss, it’s time to see a doctor to determine the cause, says Malieckal.
How can you relieve or avoid bloating?
Bloating can cause a range of symptoms like abdominal discomfort, pain and swelling. It may be accompanied by belching (burping) and flatulence (farting), which is the body’s way of getting rid of excess gas, Jena Casper, a nurse practitioner in gastroenterology at the Mayo Clinic Health System, tells TODAY.com.
While it's normal to experience bloating from time to time and you may not be able to prevent it entirely, there are ways to relieve the symptoms and avoid making bloating worse.
Slow down while eating
Eating slowly and ensuring you are chewing your food completely can help reduce the amount of air you swallow, which contributes to excess abdominal gas, the experts note.
“Try to put your fork down a little bit more and just slow down, especially if you’re at work on a time crunch or with kids where (you feel like) if you don’t eat fast, you don’t get to eat,” says Casper.
Cut the carbonated beverages
If you're bloated, it may be a good idea to cut out or cut back on your carbonated beverages because they can make bloating worse, the experts note.
"I think it is a misconception that if you're gassy, you should have seltzer to kind of help with gas, but it actually can cause more stomach distension and irritation so you feel fuller," says Malieckal.
Instead, the experts recommend sticking to water — and plenty of it — to prevent dehydration and keep things flowing.
Try peppermint or chamomile tea
A hot cup of herbal tea can be relaxing and it may help relieve the discomfort of trapped gas. Chamomile and peppermint are some of the experts’ top picks. “Peppermint oils have been studied and shown to help with gut relaxation and alleviate bloating,” says Malieckal.
Drinking hot liquids can also help relieve constipation and get your digestive tract moving, Casper adds.
Use over-the-counter medications
If you need bloating relief fast, there are a number of over-the-counter medications that can help reduce excess gas or ease discomfort and other digestive symptoms associated with bloating, the experts note.
These include simethicone, bismuth subsalicylate, the digestive enzyme lactase, or activated charcoal.
If constipation or incomplete bowel movements are the culprit of your bloating, laxatives or stool softeners can help — but these should not be used for more than 24 hours, Malieckal adds.
While OTC meds can offer immediate relief, they are not a long-term solution. "Anti-gas medications (such as simethicone) can help with the gas, but it slows down the contractions in the gut so it can actually cause constipation,” says Malieckal.
Eat smaller, more frequent meals
A common cause of excess abdominal gas is eating too much at once, the experts note, which can cause people to swallow too much air or excess gas.
Breaking up big meals into smaller ones eaten throughout the day can be a good strategy to combat bloating, says Malieckal. "Instead of three large meals, have six small ones," she adds.
Walking can help improve motility in the colon and relieve trapped gas, says Casper, which is why it's a great idea to walk in between or right after meals if bloating is a concern.
Exercising too hard right after eating can cause indigestion or even vomiting, says Malieckal, which is why walking is a great low-impact workout to get your body moving and digestion flowing.
Avoid trigger foods
If you notice specific foods always make you feel bloated or you have a known intolerance, the experts recommend avoiding those foods entirely if you can.
Some foods are known to trigger excess gas production or bloating in most people. "These include beans, cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and even raw vegetables like carrots or kale," says Malieckal. You may want to limit these or avoid these temporarily if you’re already bloated.
If you aren't sure which foods are the cause of bloating, the experts recommend keeping track of your food intake and symptoms.
"I always advise my patients to keep a diary for at least a week so we can figure out which foods may be triggering the symptoms and then you can try an elimination diet," says Malieckal.
Try a hot compress or shower
Heat can do wonders when it comes to bloating, the experts note.
Malieckal suggests placing a heating pad or warm compress on the abdomen to ease discomfort and pain and move trapped gas out of the intestines. Even taking a hot shower can help with the symptoms of bloating, says Malieckal.
Engage your core with ab exercises
An ab workout may seem like the last thing you want to do when you're bloated, but engaging your core could help release some of the trapped gas and relieve symptoms, Lee explains.
In the longer term, strengthening your core muscles can aid with overall digestive health and improve bowel movements, says Lee. "You want to move and engage your core abdominal obliques and lower abdominal rectus abdominus muscles," says Lee.
Avoid talking while eating
"Think about how you're eating ... are you talking a lot during meals and chewing your food properly?," Malieckal points out. Trying to get too many words in between bites can cause you to swallow more air while eating which can end up in your GI tract, she adds.
You don't have to eat your meals in silence, but make sure you've chewed your food completely and swallowed before launching into your next comment.
"The best advice I could give is make sure you are giving yourself dedicated time to eat, which can be really hard," says Malieckal.
Bring your knees to your chest
"I always tell my patients that if you feel like you're too gassy, elevate your knees and bring your knees up to your chest while pooping (like a squatty potty)," says Malieckal.
If you wake up feeling bloated, try rolling around and doing this pose in bed first thing in the morning to relieve gas, says Casper.
Try these 5 yoga poses to help aid in digestion.