Bloated Stomach: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment
A bloated stomach is an extremely common digestive complaint that affects most of us from time to time. However, for some people, bloating is much more than an occasional inconvenience, and results in serious pain and distress. Look out for these symptoms of bloating and discover how to treat bloating effectively.
What is Bloating?
Bloating is an abnormal swelling of the abdominal area and is estimated to affect between 10% and 30% of adults in the UK. While there are many causes of a bloated stomach, it is often due to poor eating habits, food intolerances, or an underlying digestive health condition. A bloated stomach is not a condition in its own right.
Symptoms of Bloating
The swelling that occurs with a bloated stomach is also known as distention. Symptoms can range from minor belly aches to sharp, painful cramps that can ruin meal times. The main symptoms of bloating are:
- A swollen abdominal area. Sometimes this swelling can spread to the lower chest or upper thighs.
- Feeling overly full
- Sharp pains or cramps in the stomach
- Excess wind; i.e. hiccups, burping or flatulence
- Rumbling noises from the stomach
The severity of bloating may change during the course of the day. For example, you may wake up in the morning with a relatively flat belly, but find that by lunchtime it has doubled in size. Or the symptoms of bloating may ease after you’ve been to the toilet.
Causes of Bloated Stomach
There are many different causes of bloated stomach, some of which occur simultaneously. The main causes of a bloated stomach to watch out for are:
- Cruciferous vegetables: Certain cruciferous vegetables contain a complex sugar called raffinose which causes excess gas during digestion and triggers a bloated stomach. Popular cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cabbage, sprouts and cauliflower. These foods are nutritious so don’t avoid them completely, just cut down on portion sizes and make sure they are well cooked - the body has a harder time digesting raw or undercooked vegetables.
- Eating too much or too quickly: Overeating causes the stomach to expand quickly to allow for the increased volume of food. Eating too quickly or chewing gum can increase the amount of air that is swallowed which also triggers bloating.
- Too much or not enough fibre: The digestive system needs fibre to function properly and a lack of fibre can lead to constipation, which results in bloating and a rock solid belly. If you are suffering from constipation, increase your dietary fibre gradually. It’s important to do this gradually as adding too much fibre to the diet too quickly can result in excess trapped gas and make bloating worse.
- Stress or anxiety: The brain and digestive system are closely linked so when you feel stressed or anxious, you may also experience digestive upsets such as stomach pains, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, and nausea. Anxiety triggers bloating in several different ways. Hyperventilation causes you to take in more air than is needed and swallow more oxygen than usual. It also disrupts the balance of hormones and neurotransmitters, which negatively affects digestion.
- Food intolerances: Some people struggle to digest certain foods, which can lead to the production of excessive gas, nausea, and bloat. Common food intolerances include lactose (in milk products) and fructose (a sugar in fruits). Certain food intolerances may become more common as we age, for example, you are more likely to be lactose intolerant due to decreased lactase production.
- Inflammatory bowel disorders: Bloating is a common symptom of inflammatory bowel disorders such as IBS, Coeliac disease and Crohn’s disease. The treatment should focus on relieving the underlying condition, and symptoms can often be avoided with the adoption of certain lifestyle changes.
- Heartburn: Heartburn occurs when acid moves from the stomach up the oesophagus, and commonly results in bloating, nausea, belching, and flatulence. It often occurs soon after eating or drinking, and commonly affects the upper belly region. To reduce heartburn, avoid eating fatty or spicy meals, and raw foods and vegetables as these are harder for the body to digest.
- PMS: In the days leading up to menstruation, many women experience uncomfortable bloating and abdominal pain. This is due to hormonal fluctuations that cause water retention.
- A lack of good bacteria in the digestive system: A lot of the digestive system’s legwork is performed by bacteria in the gut. As bacteria break downs food it produces gas so it’s important to ensure you have the right balance of good and bad bacteria to keep bloating to a minimum.
- Overuse of antibiotics: Antibiotics are designed to kill bacteria in the gut. However, they kill the good bacteria along with the bad, which affects the balance of intestinal flora and impairs digestion.
Can Bloating Be Dangerous?
For most people, a bloated stomach is an occasional irritation that goes away by itself. For others, it can be incredibly painful and distressing. If bloating is accompanied by unexplained weight loss, severe abdominal pain, nausea, fever, or blood in your stool, you should seek medical advice. Your doctor will investigate whether bloating is caused by digestive disorders such as IBS, gallstones, or ulcers. A physical examination of the abdomen will also help to uncover any obstructions that need to be treated.
Most of us have experienced the symptoms of a bloated stomach before, usually after eating a large meal. Fortunately, many causes of bloated stomach can be easily managed with changes to diet and eating habits.
Reduce your intake of gas-producing foods: Some people find that bloating occurs after eating certain legumes and cruciferous vegetables, such as beans, lentils, onions, broccoli, cabbage, sprouts and cauliflower. If this is the case, try to reduce your intake of these foods or ensure they are well cooked. Swap them for cucumber, asparagus, melon, banana, grapes, avocado or papaya instead.
Identify any foods you are intolerant to: Food intolerances, such as dairy and wheat, can lead to a bloated stomach and excess gas. If you are concerned that you have an intolerance to a particular food, try cutting it out of your diet for a couple of weeks to see if there is any improvement in symptoms. Keep a food diary to help you identify the likely culprits.
Cut down on salt: Salt causes the body to retain water so diets high in salt often lead to bloating. Try to avoid salty foods, such as processed and junk food, crisps, pretzels, and even some sweet foods. Avoid adding extra salt at the table by using herbs and spices to flavour your food instead.
Cut down on starchy foods: Bread, potatoes and pasta can cause fluid retention and a bloated stomach. Opt for smaller portions or swap them for healthier alternatives such as brown rice, quinoa, tortillas, or sweet potato.
Avoid swallowing air while eating: Many people don’t realise that we swallow air when we eat, which can further contribute to bloating. There are steps you can take to reduce the amount of air you swallow; chew and swallow your food slowly, chew with your mouth closed, avoid eating and talking at the same time, and avoid drinking through straws.
Cut down on fizzy drinks: Carbonated beverages like soda contain a lot of air, which becomes trapped in the stomach and triggers gas and a bloated stomach. Stick to noncarbonated drinks such as water, milk, fruit cordial, or herbal teas. Beer is another drink that can trigger bloating in some people as it contains a lot of wheat.
Treat constipation promptly: Constipation is often accompanied by bloating and abdominal pain. To prevent constipation, eat a fibre-rich with plenty of fruit and vegetables, and drink lots of water to keep well hydrated.
Exercise regularly: Exercise speeds up the transit time of food through the digestive system and improves bowel function. Walking, jogging, swimming or cycling are all good forms of exercise to get the bowels moving, while certain yoga poses can help to release trapped gas.
Use natural remedies: Natural remedies can offer additional protection against bloating. Here are three popular solutions:
- Probiotics: Probiotics are good bacteria found naturally in the gut which helps to regulate digestion and play an important role in your general health. If there is an imbalance in good and bad bacteria in the gut, this can lead to bloating, excess gas, diarrhoea and constipation. Eating foods that contain good bacteria such as live yoghurt, miso paste, kefir or sauerkraut can help, or you could take a probiotic supplement to increase the level of good bacteria in your digestive system.
- Ginger: Ginger can relieve a bloated stomach and ease other digestive symptoms such as nausea, indigestion and stomach aches. It works by relaxing the intestinal tract and relieving inflammation. It also acts as a carminative – that is, it can prevent the formation of excess gas. Try using ginger as a flavouring in food, chewing on a piece of ginger root, or sip on ginger tea when you feel bloated.
- Peppermint: Peppermint can be very beneficial for bloating and excess gas, as it has natural muscle relaxant and antispasmodic properties. It also helps to improve the mobility the digestive tract by relaxing the smooth muscles in the intestines walls, allowing food and trapped air to move through smoothly. Drinking a cup of peppermint tea after a large meal can help to relieve any symptoms of a bloated stomach, indigestion or gas.
If you regularly suffer from a bloated stomach, try to adopt these lifestyle and dietary changes to avoid the common symptoms of bloating.