What Causes Bloating and What You Can Do About It

Angela Cabotaje Fact Checked
© Kellie French / Stocksy United

One week, you’re feeling fly in your favorite pair of jeans. The next, every waistband feels like a vice around your midsection. What gives?

While it’s entertaining to think this is some “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” sorcery in reverse, this fashion fail is for a much less amusing reason: You’re bloated.

“Abdominal bloating is often associated with increased belching or flatulence but sometimes can be felt as a trapping of air or gas in the gut,” explains Allison Fairbanks, a nurse practitioner at the Digestive Health Center at University of Washington Medical Center and the Digestive Health Clinic at UW Medicine's Eastside Specialty Center. “That can lead to distention where the gut protrudes more than feels normal.”

Extra gas and an uncomfortably full feeling? Ugh, bloating sure blows.

Common causes of bloating

Bloating may feel like punishment from some disapproving denim deity, but its causes are actually pretty mundane.

For starters, there’s your diet. If you’re a fan of things like broccoli, kale, nuts, avocados, kombucha or sparkling water, you may be gearing yourself up for an extra dose of gas in your gut.

“It’s a normal physiological process where your body breaks down the nutrients, resulting in the byproduct of gas,” Fairbanks says. “But some foods we eat, while healthy, can produce more gas than others.”

Along with what you’re eating, another reason for that telltale too-full feeling in your tummy is how you’re eating. When you gulp down beverages too quickly or eat too rapidly, you can accidentally swallow extra air in the process. The same thing happens when you’re chewing gum.

Your desk job or fondness for a good lounge sesh on your couch might even be to blame.

“Our modern culture is more sedentary than in the past,” Fairbanks explains. “Sometimes bloating is related to a lack of activity or sitting for long periods of time during the day.”

And if you happen to be menstruating, bloating is yet another gift bestowed upon you by your fickle hormones. You know, along with that whole PMS thing.

Like we said before … ugh.

Medical issues can also cause bloating

There are times, though, when you can’t just blame broccoli. Some underlying medical conditions trigger bloating, too.

If you’re living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), for example, you’re at a greater risk of constipation, diarrhea, stomach pain and — bingo — bloating. You may also be more susceptible to something called visceral hypersensitivity, when you feel the sensations of bloating more intensely than the average person.

Other conditions that make you more prone to increased gas in your gut include celiac disease, certain food sensitivities like lactose intolerance and reduced gut motility, which can occur in people with diabetes.

“If you have a medical reason for your bloating, the first step is to seek management of that,” Fairbanks says. “If your underlying condition is identified and managed appropriately, that can almost always help curb the bloating.”

But, she adds, it’s important to note when your bloating isn’t just an annoying side effect but rather a sign of something more serious.

When pain from bloating is disturbing your sleep at night, that’s a huge red flag. Other major warnings include unintentional weight loss, appetite change and alarming bowel signs like blood in the stool.

“If you have any of those things happen, you absolutely should go to your doctor to be evaluated,” Fairbanks says.

How to treat and prevent bloating

Once you’ve ruled out serious medical conditions, there are simple steps you can take to ease your discomfort and stave off bloating in the future.

Peppermint oil and over-the-counter medications can help with gut motility. Fairbanks also recommends wearing an activity tracker to encourage you to move throughout the day or, at the very least, using a standing desk at work.

While there’s little data to support the effectiveness of probiotics (microorganisms that aid digestion in your gut) for bloating prevention, Fairbanks says prebiotics (essentially food for said microorganisms) may help. But, of course, eating too much of those prebiotic-containing foods — things like yogurt or sauerkraut — might also make your bloating worse.

If you suspect certain foods are causing the hot mess in your digestive tract, a low-FODMAP diet might be worth a try for a short period of time. This special diet limits your consumption of FODMAPs — short for fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols — which don’t digest well in the gut. That’s things like legumes, wheat and various fruits.

“It’s really a tool to help you identify what your triggers are, but it’s not a great long-term diet because it can be really restrictive and you can end up eliminating foods that are really important in terms of nutrients,” Fairbanks says.

Instead, she suggests trying a low-FODMAP version of the elimination diet. Start by removing ingredients one by one from your diet and then eventually reintroduce them. This strategy can help you evaluate how your body reacts with and without those trigger foods.

With any luck, you’ll be able to figure out the root cause of your bloating so you can rock your favorite jeans whenever you darn well please.