Almost everyone who’s ever had a period is familiar with bloating: that uncomfortable, distended, and full feeling in your stomach. It can be easy to just ride it out for a few days every month, but not all bloating is a passing PMS symptom. About 31 percent of Americans experience symptoms of bloating at some point, with 75 percent of them categorizing those symptoms as moderate to severe. 10 percent experience bloating on a regular basis. So what can we do about it?
First, we need to understand how and why bloating happens. The UNC Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders has a helpful visual: “Imagine two rubber tubes, one within the other one. If the inner tube is the intestines and the outer tube represents the wall of the abdomen, any change in the volume and pressure of the inner tube would affect the outer tube.” This change in volume of the GI tract (the inner tube) produces a change in the outer tube and causes stomach distention, which the body responds to by relaxing the muscles to accommodate the increase in volume. Some people are especially sensitive, perceiving the sensation of bloating even after normal contractions of the gut.
The key to relieving symptoms of bloating, then, is to figure out what’s causing the change in the inner tube in the first place. Here’s what to look out for.
About half of the gas in your digestive system is caused by gut bacteria that helps your body digest food. The other half comes from swallowing air. But if you’re swallowing too much air and your gastrointestinal tract doesn’t get it moving efficiently, it can build up, which causes bloating. The main culprits behind all of that extra air? Chewing gum, sucking on hard candy, drinking carbonated beverages or drinking through a straw, and eating too fast.
Need another reason to slow down at meal time? It’ll help your body know when it’s full, which stops you from overeating. Overeating makes it harder for your gastrointestinal tract to do its job efficiently, which can be another cause of bloating.
Did you know that certain foods, like beans, can cause bloating, and the reason why comes down to how hard they are to digest. Beans and lentils contain sugars called oligosaccharides; they’re indigestible, so it’s the bacteria in the intestines that has to break them down. If you’re lactose-intolerant, dairy products are similarly hard to digest, since your body has a hard time breaking down lactose. Watch out for both artificial and natural sweeteners, too — artificial sweeteners like sorbitol can’t be completely digested, while some people have a hard time digesting natural sugars like fructose.
Wait, isn’t fiber supposed to be good at keeping things moving? Yes, but just so long as you’re not overdoing it or adding too much fiber to your diet too fast. Increase your fiber intake slowly, and make sure you’re plenty hydrated. Liquids are absorbed by fiber, which helps it move through the digestive system, keeping bloating and constipation at bay.
If you’ve ever noticed that you feel bloated the morning after an extra happy happy hour, start chugging water, not mimosas. Your body retains fluid when it’s dehydrated, whether that’s from alcohol or just because you forgot to drink enough water throughout the day.
Most often, bloating is harmless and temporary. But if your bloating comes with sudden weight loss, severe abdominal pain, blood in your stool, diarrhea, or fever — or if nothing relieves it — make an appointment with your doctor to check for serious causes like irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, liver disease, and more.