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Bloating: Causes and Prevention Tips
How often do you hear yourself or friends complain about bloating? We often just say we’re bloated when we feel full, but for many women, the problem relates to a chronic underlying condition. If you feel bloated often, you may have a condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which affects up to 24 percent of women.
Linda Lee, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center, explains common causes of bloating and what you can do to prevent this uncomfortable condition.
What is bloating?
Bloating is a condition where your belly feels full and tight, often due to gas.
“A lot of people tell me they’re bloated simply because their belly sticks out and they don’t like how it looks,” says Lee. She says as women age, it’s natural for them to develop abdominal wall laxity, or looseness, especially those who have had children.
“When our guts are full of food or stool, you can see it more easily than when you may have had a toned abdomen,” Lee says. She says the difference between this and bloating is important when it comes to treatment.
Causes of Bloating
One common cause of bloating is constipation. “A lot of people don’t even know they’re constipated,” Lee says. While having fewer bowel movements than you normally do is a symptom of constipation, you may still be constipated even if you have regular bowel movements. Other symptoms of constipation include:
- Straining to start or finish a bowel movement
- Stool that looks like rocks and pebbles
- Not feeling empty after a bowel movement
Constipation can contribute to abdominal pain and bloating. “The longer your stool sits in your colon, the more time bacteria have to ferment what’s there,” says Lee. “You’re going to get gassier, and you’re going to feel a lot more bloated.”
Aside from constipation, other causes of bloating include:
- Gut sensitivity: People with IBS can be extremely sensitive to gas, which can cause pain, cramping and diarrhea.
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO): Most healthy people have relatively few bacteria in the small intestine. People who have had intestinal surgery and/or IBS with diarrhea are more likely to have SIBO, which can cause bloating.
- Gastroparesis: This condition causes delayed stomach emptying, which can cause bloating, nausea and even bowel blockage. Women are four times as likely as men to have gastroparesis, and as many as 40 percent of people with diabetes will also have it. Researchers are studying this condition to understand whether it may have an inflammatory or autoimmune trigger.
- Gynecological conditions: Sometimes problems with your ovaries or uterus may cause bloating. Make sure you never skip your annual pelvic exam.
How to Prevent Bloating
Typically, the first line of treatment for preventing gas and bloating is changing your diet. Research has shown that a low fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAP) diet can reduce the symptoms of gas and IBS. A low FODMAP diet avoids fermentable, gas-producing food ingredients, such as:
- Oligosaccharides, which are found in wheat, onions, garlic, legumes and beans
- Disaccharides, such as lactose in milk, yogurt and ice cream
- Monosaccharides, including fructose (a type of sugar found in honey), apples and pears
- Polyols or sugar alcohols found in foods such as apricots, nectarines, plums and cauliflower, as well as many chewing gums and candies
“The small intestine doesn’t always fully absorb these carbohydrates, instead passing them to the colon, where they are fermented by bacteria and produce gas,” Lee says. Not everyone gets gas and bloating from every FODMAP foods. You might start by cutting out FODMAP foods and then slowly bringing them back into your diet one at a time to pinpoint problem foods.
In the long run, the key to preventing bloating is understanding its cause. If mild constipation is the problem, a fiber-rich diet, water and exercise may help, but these steps won’t always work for chronic constipation. Chronic constipation and other conditions, such as IBS or gastroparesis, require medical treatment, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about your bloating symptoms.