At best, bloating means you’ll need to save your favorite jeans for another day. At worst, the tightness in your belly can feel intensely painful and last for days on end. While bloating is technically classified as a digestive issue, there are numerous possible culprits behind your tight, puffy stomach.
Some of these originate in your GI tract, such as the inability to digest foods completely, an imbalanced microbiome, or the presence of too much air in your digestive system. But others, such as hidden hormone imbalances, increased stress levels, or a sedentary lifestyle may begin far from your gut before manifesting as bloat.
Dealing with a tight, bloated middle day after day can be frustrating and uncomfortable. Here are 10 ways to identify the cause of your bloating and get rid of it for good.
Drink More Water
When you’re bloated, it often feels like your stomach is so full that you couldn’t put anything more in. Besides, if water retention is behind your bloating, why would you want to drink more of it?
While it may seem counterintuitive, the more water you drink, the smoother your digestion will be. In short, your body needs water to move food through the GI tract. As food moves through the small intestine, water is transported from your bloodstream into your GI tract to help break it down so your body can more easily absorb the nutrients. Then in the large intestine water moves back out into the bloodstream so that what remains can become a healthy stool. Water also plays a key role in preventing constipation, which can contribute to bloating. Aim to drink at least six cups (or 1.5 liters) every day.
Take a Probiotic
There are millions of bacteria living in your gut, influencing everything from digestion to immunity, weight, mood, and more. When your microbiome is properly balanced, meaning there are more healthy, supportive bacteria than health-hindering bugs, all these processes run smoothly. But when the bad bacteria start to grow in numbers they can cause a host of problems, digestive woes like bloating among them.
Probiotic supplements, which deliver a dose of beneficial bacteria, help keep balance in your gut tipped in favor of the good guys, reducing inflammation and limiting the production of gas that causes bloating.
Consider Your Sex Hormones
Estrogen and progesterone may primarily be sex hormones, but they play numerous roles in the body---including impacting the efficiency of your digestive system. For women, high estrogen levels, which occur in the middle of the menstrual cycle (peaking at ovulation), increase water retention, contributing to bloat. When progesterone is high in the second half of the menstrual cycle it slows down the movement of food through your GI tract, also contributing to bloating. And for women going through perimenopause and menopause, fluctuations in levels of these two hormones can trigger both bloat-inducing mechanisms at the same time.
In either case, drinking water and eating more fiber-rich foods to stimulate digestion can help keep things moving.
Simply put, how easily food moves through your digestive tract is directly linked to how much you’re moving your body throughout the day. If you have a more sedentary lifestyle, spending hours each day in front of your computer, digestion is going to slow and the likelihood of developing GI woes like bloating or constipation will increase. Conversely, if you’re moving regularly, your digestion system will work more efficiently and you’ll have fewer problems: A study on patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) found that regular exercise significantly reduced symptoms.
The best part: You don’t need to carve out time for an hour-long walk every day. Simply standing up and moving around for a few minutes every hour so that you move for 30-40 minutes total over the course of the day will be enough to combat the negative effects of being sedentary, including bloating. If you’re not moving regularly, it may also be worth considering why. Do you feel fatigued and low energy? Are you sleeping poorly? Getting to the bottom of these issues can help as well.
Believe it or not, stress may be one of the factors behind your bloated belly. When you’re feeling stressed, levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase, sending your body into the “fight or flight” state. In this state, your body prioritizes the processes that are necessary for survival while de-prioritizing others, including the gastrointestinal system. The result: Blood flow to the gut, digestive enzyme production, and the movement of food through the GI tract slow down, leading to gas and bloating.
If stress is contributing to your bloating, stress-reducing practices like meditation or deep breathing can help. Taking the time to focus on your breath has been shown to lower cortisol levels.
Get Your Thyroid Checked
The hormones produced by your thyroid play numerous roles in the body, including regulating metabolism, energy levels, keeping blood pressure steady, ensuring healthy bone growth, and---you guessed it--optimizing digestion. If you aren’t producing enough thyroid hormone, a condition called hypothyroidism that affects millions of Americans, movement of food through the GI tract slows, causing issues like constipation and bloating. On the flip side, if your thyroid is on hyperdrive, a condition called hyperthyroidism, it can cause painful gas and stomach pain.
Testing your levels of the thyroid hormones, in particular T3, T4, and TSH can reveal if a thyroid imbalance is behind your bloating---and correcting these imbalances will quickly banish symptoms.
At the root of many a digestive woe is the hidden inability to break down certain components of the foods you’re eating. Among these difficult-to-digest foods are those called the FODMAP, a group of sugars found in grains, dairy, and certain fruits (like watermelon, apples, pears, and mangoes) and veggies (like onions, garlic, asparagus, and cauliflower), which feed the bad bacteria in your gut and prompt them to release gas.
While it can feel restrictive, eliminating foods that contain FODMAPs from your diet has been shown to significantly reduce the severity of GI symptoms like bloating in patients with IBS. The diet is specifically designed to help the nearly 50 million American adults with IBS and/or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
Cut Out Salty Foods
If you’ve ever had to undo a button after a night of Chinese food or French fries, you’re not alone. Eating foods high in sodium has been found to increase water retention and slow the movement of food through the GI tract, leading to bloating in the hours and days afterward as the food crawls through your system.
You may also experience the bloating effects of sodium if you’re consuming too much on a regular basis. In addition to cutting down on salty foods, try to keep your sodium consumption under 2,300 mg.per day.
Check for Lactose Intolerance
By the age of 20, about 30 million Americans will have some degree of lactose intolerance or the inability to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in milk. While rarely dangerous, unknown lactose intolerance could be causing pesky digestive symptoms, including bloating, gas, diarrhea, or abdominal cramps---and depending on the degree of your intolerance and how much dairy you’re eating, it could be difficult to pinpoint it as the culprit behind your ills.
While there are tests that can determine whether or not you’re lactose intolerant, you can also find out yourself by cutting lactose out of your diet for a week or two and monitoring your symptoms. If your bloating disappears, consider your woes behind you.
Everyone has heard that simply eating less can help prevent bloating. Indeed, because you naturally swallowing air during the process of eating, limiting your portions means less air winds up in your gut and causes pesky gas. But the truth of the matter is that if your appetite is out of control and you can’t seem to put down the fork, it’s not a matter of willpower---there’s likely an underlying hormonal or nutrient imbalance causing you to overeat.
How Testing Can Help You Beat the Bloat
Indeed, many of the most common causes of bloating, as well as the strategies that help you beat them, are linked to these hidden issues, which I can help you sniff out with a simple at-home test. And these tests not only reveal the cause but also lead to personalized recommendations for how to heal yourself.
The bottom line: While GI issues like bloating often feel like something you just have to learn to live with, that’s not true! I can help you pinpoint the cause and work toward the solution to banish your bloating for good.