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Why Am I So Bloated: Explained by A Doctor

Dr. Alexandra Kharazi, MD

Published in Health & Wellness

6 min read

February 20, 2024
a woman holding her stomach
a woman holding her stomach

“ Why am I so bloated?” is a question you may commonly ask yourself, and it’s a question that plagues many Americans. Unfortunately, bloating is a common discomfort that many of us experience at some point in our lives. 

If you’ve experienced this unpleasant feeling and have been in search of a solution, the good news is that understanding its root causes can lead you to a path of relief.

So, what exactly causes this sensation of fullness, swelling and discomfort? Let's delve into the science behind bloating and explore the various factors that can cause it.

The Science Behind Bloating

Bloating occurs when there is an abnormal buildup of gas or air in the digestive system, leading to feelings of fullness, discomfort, and abdominal distention. It's a prevalent issue for many, with one study finding that “one in seven women reported experiencing bloating within the past week.”

What makes bloating a complex topic is that many factors can contribute to it—meaning that determining the exact cause of your bloating can be quite difficult. The processes in the body that lead to bloating are still not completely understood by researchers. 

For example, elevated levels of intestinal gas are one factor that can cause bloating and accompanying symptoms. According to studies, the average person has 100 to 200 cubic centimeters of gas within the GI tract at all times. 

However, there is no consensus on what constitutes an abnormal amount of intestinal gas. As a result, it’s hard for doctors and scientists to measure levels of bloating beyond self-reported symptoms.

The causes of bloating can also stem from various factors—including swallowing too much air, excess water retention, certain dietary choices, underlying conditions, surgery, inability to pass gas, and more. 

So, how can you be sure that the discomfort you are experiencing is bloating? The symptoms of bloating can vary from person to person, but some common signs and symptoms include: 

symptoms of bloating
  • Abdominal discomfort or stomach pain
  • Visible swelling or distention
  • Excessive gas
  • Feeling of fullness
  • Tightness or pressure in the abdomen
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Cramping
  • Nausea
  • Reduced appetite

As you can see, there’s an intricate combination of factors ranging from dietary habits, gut bacteria, digestive processes, and gastrointestinal motility that can influence the occurrence and severity of bloating. 

Common Causes of Bloating

Let's explore the primary culprits behind bloating symptoms and how they can manifest in your daily life.

a girl holding her abdomen
Source: Pexels

Dietary Choices

Your eating habits play a significant role in bloating.  A common cause of bloating for some people is the fermentation of undigested carbohydrates by bacteria in the colon. This can result in the production of gasses such as hydrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide.

Gas is a normal byproduct of digestion, but excessive gas can cause bloating. This can be caused by eating certain foods, especially high FODMAP foods such as beans, lentils, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli. 

Other dietary factors such as overeating, large portion sizes, rapid consumption, chewing gum, and indulgence in carbonated drinks can all contribute to abdominal discomfort by increasing gas production or causing gastrointestinal irritation. 

Food Intolerances

Food allergies or sensitivities such as gluten or lactose intolerance can cause bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Food intolerances can trigger bloating for various reasons, including issues with the digestive system such as dysbiosis.

Underlying Health Conditions

Several underlying medical conditions, such as SIBO/SIFO, IBS, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or gastroparesis, may exacerbate bloating symptoms, highlighting the importance of seeking medical evaluation for persistent bloating.

health conditions linked to bloating
  • Constipation: This can cause bloating because the stool can become hard and impacted, blocking the passage of gas and stool.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome: IBS is a common digestive disorder that can cause bloating or abdominal pain. A low FODMAP diet is often recommended as a temporary elimination diet to treat these symptoms.
  • Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO): SIBO is a condition in which there is an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. This can cause bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.
  • Celiac disease: This is an autoimmune disorder that can cause damage to the small intestine. This can lead to bloating, diarrhea, and weight loss.
  • Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis: These conditions are known as inflammatory bowel diseases that can cause bloating and other GI symptoms.

Hormonal Changes

Hormonal fluctuations, particularly during menstruation, can lead to abdominal bloating. In some studies, ovarian hormonal fluctuations have been linked to bloating, which leads researchers to believe that changes in estrogen and progesterone levels may contribute either directly or indirectly to these symptoms. Check out our article on the best diet for menstruation here.

Other Lifestyle Factors

Certain lifestyle choices, including a sedentary lifestyle, a history of smoking, excessive alcohol consumption can aggravate bloating symptoms and impact overall digestive health. In addition to this, factors such as high stress levels have also been linked to increased reports of bloating.

Best Practices For Avoiding Bloating

Understanding the factors contributing to bloating is the first step towards finding relief. By addressing dietary choices, identifying food intolerances, managing underlying health conditions, considering hormonal influences, and adopting healthier lifestyle habits, individuals can mitigate bloating and enhance their overall well-being. 

It's crucial to work closely with a registered dietitian or nutritionist or healthcare professional to develop personalized strategies for managing and preventing bloating. Here are some practical steps you can take to minimize bloating and discomfort:

best practices for avoiding bloating
  • Adopt a Balanced Diet: A well-balanced diet includes lean protein, fruits, and vegetables. An appropriate amount of fiber-rich foods promote healthy digestion.
  • Avoid Overeating: Try to eat until you're comfortably satisfied rather than overly full to avoid overeating, which may also cause a temporary uncomfortable sensation of bloating. 
  • Cut Out Carbonated Drinks: Carbonated beverages introduce additional gas into your digestive system, contributing to flatulence and bloating. Consider opting for still water, herbal teas, or other non-carbonated alternatives.
  • Quit Smoking: Smoking not only harms your overall health but also contributes to bloating and digestive issues. Kicking the habit can significantly reduce these symptoms.
  • Stay Active: A sedentary lifestyle can slow digestion and increase bloating. Staying active, especially after eating, can help keep your digestive system functioning optimally and may reduce bloating.

If you’re currently experiencing bloating and in need of treatment options, over-the-counter fiber supplements and probiotics may also help relieve certain symptoms. Seeking professional guidance for treatment options can help ensure that dietary and lifestyle adjustments are tailored to your individual needs.

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Victoria Eaton, RDN, LDN, IFNCP

Reviewed by: Victoria Eaton, RDN, LDN, IFNCP

Victoria began her career in the functional medicine space in 2015. She has extensive experience interpreting labs and supporting weight loss, gut imbalances, and chronic migraines. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition and dietetics from Missouri State University.

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