When a larger-than-normal meal leaves you with no choice but to loosen a belt buckle, it can be uncomfortable — not to mention frustrating.
Bloating, which is one of the common complaints that physicians hear from their patients, can come from a variety of causes, from eating too much to food intolerance. It can feel like you have an inflated balloon in your stomach, and sometimes, it may actually be visible on your waistline (called distension).
In its less severe form, bloating can simply be annoying. However, it can also be quite painful and negatively impact your quality of life. It may come with other gas-related complaints as well, such as burping, swallowing air and passing gas — none of which are fun to have to deal with.
Bloating may be common, but that doesn’t mean you — or your belt buckle — should have to live with it.
“In order to reduce or eliminate bloating, it’s important to first determine its cause,” explains Charlotte Smith, MD, physician at Penn Urgent Care South Philadelphia.
Once you know the reason behind your bloating, you can take the necessary — and often very simple — steps to treat it and keep it from coming back.
Bloating: The Many Possible Causes
The cause of belly bloat is a bit of a mystery in the medical world, and it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s causing your expanded stomach.
However, there are some common causes of bloating, starting with what can sometimes take up a good portion of your day: eating.
Bloating and Your Diet
“Dietary intolerances are the most common cause of bloating, especially dairy and gluten — found in wheat, rye and barley,” explains Dr. Smith.
However, you can be intolerant to pretty much anything you consume. Other possible intolerances include:
- Vegetables, such as artichokes and asparagus
- Fruits, such as apricots and prunes
- Carbonated drink
- Products with lactose, such as bread and salad dressing
- Foods with sorbitol, such as sugar-free candies
Other times, bloating can be caused by eating too fast or drinking with a straw. Both of these can cause you to take in extra air while you eat. That air ends up in your stomach, which can lead to bloating.
And sometimes, bloating is simply caused by an extra-large meal. Normally, your stomach is about the size of a fist. But after indulging in a substantially large lunch or dinner, it expands to make room for that extra food. Until your stomach is done breaking down the food, you can feel extra full and bloated for a little while.
Bloating as a Symptom of Another Condition
“Bloating may have nothing to do with what you eat but actually be a result of another condition,” says Dr. Smith.
Some conditions that may cause bloating include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome, which is a combination of symptoms — bloating, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain — for 3 or more months
- Inflammatory bowel disease, which is when your gastrointestinal (digestive) tract is inflamed (such as in Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis)
- Celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease when a protein called gluten (in wheat, barley and rye) causes your immune system to damage your small intestine
- Constipation, which is when you have 3 or fewer bowel movements a week, hard or dry stools, or difficulty moving your bowels
- Gastroparesis, when your stomach empties food into your small intestine slowly and inefficiently
- Cancer in the colon, ovaries, stomach or pancreas
Other Possible Causes of Bloating
There are some other possible reasons why you’re feeling bloating, which are unrelated to food or another condition. These include:
- An imbalance of microorganisms in your bowel, which can be the result of taking antibiotics
- Increased curving in the lumbar spine (lower back), which can decrease the room in your abdomen
- Extra belly fat, which can be due to cigarette smoking or alcohol use, or can be a result of a typical body type of women
- Water retention before or during a woman’s menstrual cycle due to hormones, such as progesterone — which may be intensified by medications such as birth control pills or fertility drugs
The Importance of Working with Your Primary Care Provider
“Bloating can be a complex issue, caused by one or multiple factors,” explains Dr. Smith.
It’s important to talk openly and honestly with your primary care provider during annual check-ups and other appointments.
If you’re concerned that there’s more to your bloating, make an appointment with your physician, who may also refer you to a gastroenterologist, a physician dedicated to diagnosing and treating diseases of the gastrointestinal tract and liver.
“The key to identifying the cause of bloating is communication, mainly because symptoms can sometimes be vague,” says Dr. Smith.
Getting a clear, complete picture can help put you on your way to a bloat-free — and waistline-friendly — life.