Most people have encountered that post-meal, "I need to unbutton my pants in order to breathe" feeling. But unfortunately many never get the answer to the popular question, "why do I feel bloated?" Here we dive into the many different potential causes.
Let's start with the definition of bloating:
As one study said, “bloating is primarily a sensory phenomenon, and the ability to accurately measure it in clinical practice is limited.”
Bloating is a subjective feeling, not a medical condition.
Ultimately, it’s bloating that tells you something else is going on in the gut. It is usually paired with other symptoms that make the experience different from person to person and condition to condition. For example, stomach bloating from eating late night, MSG-loaded Chinese takeout could feel very different from bloating from a bout of IBS.
Since bloating can be so subjective, while also being universal, let’s take a look at some of its many causes. (And brace yourself - there are many.)
While never fun or, erm, sexy, gas is a very normal and healthy physical experience. Normal digestive gas occurs when your intestines can’t break down certain nutrients like lactose, legumes, fructose, and complex carbohydrates and other high fiber foods.
Additionally, gas within the GI tract can develop from several additional sources, such as swallowed air, diffusion from the bloodstream, or from the variety of chemical reactions that occur within the GI tract.
Bloating from regular digestive gas is normal, but when it's severe or occurring on an ongoing basis, it could be a sign something is awry in the gut. Such as...
Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) can cause bloating, excerpt from gas located in a different region of the gut.
Our gut microbiome should exist almost entirely in the large intestine, so when bacteria make a home (and grows rapidly) in the small intestine, you’re left feeling bloated along with a host of other symptoms including diarrhea and abdominal pain. When these bacteria are fermenting foods and attempting to digest nutrients too early in the alimentary tract, it creates gas in the small intestines, usually leading to bloating.
Sometimes bloating is a volume issue when more matter tries to fit into the same amount of space.
Bloating from constipation comes from a combination of causes, including low functioning intestinal motility (the ability of your colon to move fecal matter out of the body), dehydration, poor diet and as a reaction to certain medications. This inability to evacuate the lower intestine can cause the belly to distend or bloat.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is an all-encompassing term for a condition with, again, many different potential causes.
Irregular intestinal muscle contractions, intestinal inflammation or a stressed nervous system can all cause an IBS flare up, with bloating being the main symptom. In fact, 90% of patients with irritable bowel syndrome have symptoms of bloating.
Food, the lone traveler of the digestive tract, can be a direct cause of bloating.
Eating processed foods high in sodium tells the body it needs to retain water, causing (you guessed it) bloating. Though sodium is essential to electrolyte balance in the body, too much sodium makes the system hold onto water in an attempt to keep the sodium levels proportional to the internal fluids.
Your kidneys say, “hey, we’re a little thirsty with all this salt!” and cues the body to hold onto that extra water. Drinking extra water will help flush it out, but sometimes at the expense of other key electrolytes also leaving the body via your urine.
Beyond high sodium foods, Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols (FODMAP), are more than just a mouthful to say - they’re specific types of carbohydrates that can be tough on sensitive digestive tracts. FODMAP foods can be nutritionally beneficial and serve as a prebiotic, but when breaking down in the large intestine they ferment and create gas, causing the stomach to bloat. As one study said, FODMAP foods can be beneficial to some while to others they can cause allergic reactions and severe stomach symptoms if not properly digested.
Additionally, in general, inflammation-causing ingredients like processed foods, sugar, processed dairy, gluten, industrial seed oils, preservatives, farming toxins, and other artificial ingredients can irritate the gut and cause bloating.
Think of it this way: if it didn’t come from the earth or natural sources, there's a chance your body will treat it as a foreign invader - cue low grade inflammation and bloating in the GI tract as a result.
A note about diet:
Regardless of the common culprits above, every body’s digestive tract reacts differently to certain foods. If you suspect a food is causing you to bloat, try keeping a food journal to help identify the culprit and then either eliminate the food or change how you eat it (i.e. raw vs. cooked). Consult a nutritionist who can help you with a food elimination diet to define what’s truly ailing you and causing the belly bloat.
To all our ladies: bloating isn’t only digestion related. Research says hormones can also be to blame for bloating during PMS or menstruation.
Changes in progesterone and estrogen, that signal the body to prepare for menstruation, also tell the body’s cells to retain water to prepare for the homeostasis shift in menstruating triggers.
We know it as the underlying culprit of most medical conditions and diseases. Stress can trigger mild bloating and amp up conditions, like IBS, that already boasts of bloating as a star symptom.
This is yet another example of how bloating as a symptom can’t be traced pathologically, but in the absence of stress bloating symptoms ease up or disappear.
We have more bacteria in our gut than we do cells in our body, so making sure those trillions of little buggers are “good guys” is of high priority.
If our gut bacteria is low or of the "bad" variety, also referred to as dysbiosis, it can cause bloating. It’s a delicate ecosystem, so even in the effort to convert our bad bacteria to the good side, we can also experience symptomatic bloating.
For example, how some side effects of probiotics can make the situation worse before it gets better. Simple changes to gut bacteria (what you’re eating, environment, antibiotics, etc.) can cause bloating symptoms too.
We personally like to keep our gut in check with a daily probiotic and digestive enzymes. But, like with any other ailment, if you suspect you're suffering from any of the above issues, we recommend touching base with your doctor to help get to the bottom of the problem and identify what the potential trigger(s) could be.