Bloating: Why It Happens & How to Beat It
Bloating – most people experience this dreaded gut discomfort from time to time. But what causes it, and when does it start to become worrisome?
While not ideal, bloating is incredibly common, says Melissa Wadowloski, RD, LDN, CHC, Jefferson Health – New Jersey dietitian. However, when this build-up of gas starts to happen more often and impacts your life, it’s problematic.
What causes bloating?
Bloating has various causes, related and unrelated to underlying gastrointestinal diseases. Some of the most common causes are unrelated, such as excess salt intake, “gassy” or sulfurous foods, carbonation, overeating, menstruation, and food intolerances.
Salty foods: One of the major minerals that manages fluid balance in the body is sodium, explains Wadolowski: “Too much sodium causes the body to hang on to more fluid and feel swollen overall — not just in the abdomen. For most people, this isn’t from the salt we add from the shaker, but rather the salt that’s already in processed foods, fast foods, and condiments.”
Carbohydrates, too, influence fluid balance, which is partially why a low-carb diet seems to result in quick weight loss; it’s also reducing bloating, adds Wadolowski.
Sulfurous vegetables: Vegetables that contain a lot of sulfur and fiber, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, can be difficult to digest and cause more gas than other foods. Beans and dairy can have a similar effect.
Portion-sizes: The volume of what we eat plays a significant role in bloating, heartburn, and digestion in general, says Wadolowski. “It’s important to remember that it takes about 20 minutes to start feeling full. When we eat very quickly, we tend to overeat, and then feel sick afterward.”
Food intolerances: These are much more individualized. Many adults are lactose intolerant, meaning they can’t break down dairy products — causing gas, inflammation, diarrhea, and more. Some people can’t tolerate meat and/or foods with gluten, triggering a similar response. Food intolerances commonly cause constipation, or a back-up of bowel movements — a huge culprit for bloating.
Other small habits, like drinking through a straw or chewing gum commonly, can also cause more air to enter the stomach, contributing to bloating.
People with chronic GI diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and gastroparesis (delayed emptying of the stomach due to partial paralysis/nerve or muscle dysfunction), are more prone to bloating.
How does age play a role?
Studies show that age can impede digestion, adds Wadolowski. “Starting around age 50, we start to produce less stomach acid, which reduces our B-12 production and can actually cause heartburn symptoms (just like excess stomach acid can) and bloating.” Because of this, Wadolowski often recommends B-12 supplements to individuals over age 50, as deficiency may result in energy dips and anemia.
What we can do:
Preventing and reducing bloating starts with mindfulness, says Wadolowski. Mindful eating involves eating slowly, paying attention to portion sizes, and chewing food thoroughly. Chewing is a lot more important than you think. It’s much-needed mechanical digestion, as we can’t just rely on chemical digestion. If we start to break down food in our mouth more first, it can ease the pressure on the stomach.
Fiber and hydration are also key, especially in terms of relieving constipation. Keep in mind, too much fiber without water can just cause more bloating, says Wadolowski. “But, fiber with plenty of water — and physical activity, even if it’s just walking — will help ‘move things along.’ If you’re not used to a high-fiber diet, start small and implement it to your meals gradually.”
Monitoring salt intake; not eating too close to bedtime (as this can increase reflux and impact fullness and hunger levels the next day); and consuming more probiotics/fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut, can also be incredibly helpful.
When to seek medical help:
“If the advice above hasn’t helped your digestive troubles subside, or given you desired results, it’s important to reach out for help,” said Wadolowski. “You shouldn’t let bloating hinder your daily functionality and keep you from doing things you enjoy.”
Your primary care provider or gastroenterologist can refer you to a dietitian, who can help pinpoint more individualized dietary and lifestyle changes. Sometimes all it takes is a change in perspective and a small shift in behaviors to make a world of difference.