Most of us know the feeling of a swollen and uncomfortable belly, and – let’s face it – it’s usually a completely harmless, if somewhat frustrating, part of life. But that doesn’t stop us asking more often than we’d like: ‘Why am I always bloated?’
‘Bloating is a symptom that can have a variety of causes, which may be related to the digestive system or reproductive tract,’ explains Dr Nicky Keay, Forth’s chief medical officer and honorary clinical lecturer in medicine at UCL.
‘Once the cause has been identified, then you can start to manage it appropriately and finally answer the question of how to reduce it.’
What is bloating?
We all experience it differently and it may vary slightly every time you experience it, but according to the NHS symptoms of bloating include feeling full or bigger around the tummy, abdominal pain or discomfort, a rumbling stomach and passing wind more than usual.
Five reasons you could be bloated
1. Swallowing air
The most common reason for bloating and its myriad symptoms are the digestion of some food and beverages (such as carbonated drinks) or simply swallowing air while you eat and having lots of gas in your gut as a result.
When you’re backed up, feeling unpleasantly uncomfortable often follows. What’s more, the longer your stool stays in your colon, the more time bacteria have to ferment what’s there, resulting in more gas to form and subsequent bloating.
3. Food intolerances
Bloating tends to be experienced by those who may have a food intolerance, where a difficulty digesting certain foods can lead to uncomfortable physical reactions. Examples such as lactose and wheat intolerances may ‘prevent offending foods breaking down properly and means they are left to be fermented in the colon by bacteria.
This may lead to excess gas and bloating,’ says Rob Hobson, registered nutritionist and head of nutrition at Healthspan.
If you think you may have a food intolerance, make an appointment with your GP who can carry out further investigations. They may ask you to keep a food diary to monitor symptoms and to consider seeing what happens when you cut a particular food out of your diet for around two to six weeks and reintroduce it back in.
4. Digestive conditions
Bloating is one of the main symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), along with abdominal pain, gas, diarrhoea and constipation. Much like a suspected food intolerance, it’s worth keeping a food diary for a number of weeks to try and discover the cause of your symptoms.
It may also be a symptom of coeliac disease, a condition where your immune system attacks tissues when you eat gluten and causes damage to the small intestine. If you suspect that you may have coeliac disease, book in with your GP for further tests and a formal diagnosis.
5. The menstrual cycle
Some people feel bloated around the time of their period. ‘Feeling bloated could also be related to the menstrual cycle as part of premenstrual issues or peri- and postmenopause due to a drop in oestrogen,’ says Dr Keay.
How to reduce bloating: diet
‘Making tweaks to your diet can be helpful,’ says Rob. ‘Eat smaller portions of food (little and often) and chew your food slowly to maximise enzyme production and help break it down more effectively.’ If you’re constipated, try eating more high-fibre foods. ‘Do it slowly to avoid bloating and drink plenty of water,’ adds Rob.
Typically bloating foods and drinks may include:
• Fizzy drinks
Processed, convenience foods are often loaded with unhealthy fats and sugar, which can put a strain on your digestive system. ‘Excess sugar in the diet may also lead to an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut, especially if the rest of your diet is not very healthy. This can contribute to bloating,’ says Rob.
If you’ve been diagnosed with IBS by your GP, you may be referred to a dietitian who, among other recommendations, may suggest trying a diet called the low FODMAP diet.
Research suggests that limiting certain carbohydrates called fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs) may reduce bloating and other symptoms in people with this condition.
How to reduce bloating: exercise
‘Whether it’s caused by the reproductive or digestive tract, gentle exercise can help,’ says Dr Keay.
Research suggests that even a 10-15 minute walk may help reduce feelings of bloating and fullness in your stomach following a meal. Exercise may also help with stress levels, which could be useful if you find your digestive symptoms are more noticeable during times of stress.
Want to get more hands-on? Massaging your stomach to release trapped wind can be helpful in our experience (in the comfort of your bathroom and bedroom, we hasten to add!).
The key takeaways
Bloating is extremely common, but there are plenty of ways to help beat it. Whether that’s making some small tweaks to what and when you eat, some gentle exercise, massage or keeping a food diary to see if there may be something triggering it in your diet, there are options to provide some welcome relief in both the short and long term.