What Causes Abdominal Bloating?

General

Abdominal bloating occurs when the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is filled with air or gas. Most people describe bloating as feeling full, tight, or swollen in the abdomen. Your abdomen may also be swollen (distended), hard, and painful. Bloating is often accompanied by:

  • pain
  • excessive gas (flatulence)
  • frequent burping or belching
  • abdominal rumbling or gurgles

Abdominal bloating can interfere with your ability to work and participate in social or recreational activities. According to the University of North Carolina, people who do experience abdominal bloating use more sick days, visit the doctor oftener, and take more medications than other people. Bloating is common among both adults and children.

Why do you feel bloated?

Gas and air

Gas is the most common cause of bloating, especially after eating. Gas builds up in the digestive tract when undigested food gets broken down or when you swallow air. Everyone swallows air when they eat or drink. But some people can swallow more than others, especially if they are:

  • eating or drinking too fast
  • chewing gum
  • smoking
  • wearing loose dentures

Burping and flatulence are two ways swallowed air leaves the body. Delayed emptying of the stomach (slow gas transport) in addition to gas accumulation can also cause bloating and abdominal distension.

Medical causes

Other causes of bloating may be due to medical conditions. These include:

  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
  • other functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs)
  • heartburn
  • food intolerance
  • weight gain
  • hormonal flux (especially for women)
  • giardiasis (intestinal parasite infection)
  • eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa
  • mental health factors such as stress, anxiety, depression, and more
  • some medications

These conditions cause factors that contribute to gas and bloating, such as:

  • overgrowth or deficiency of bacteria within the GI tract
  • gas accumulation
  • altered gut motility
  • impaired gas transit
  • abnormal abdominal reflexes
  • visceral hypersensitivity (feeling of bloating in small or even normal body changes)
  • food and carbohydrate malabsorption
  • constipation

Serious causes

Abdominal bloating can also be a symptom of several serious conditions, including:

  • pathologic fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity (ascites) as a result of cancer (e.g., ovarian cancer), liver disease, kidney failure, or congestive heart failure
  • celiac disease, or gluten intolerance
  • pancreatic insufficiency, which is impaired digestion because the pancreas cannot produce enough digestive enzymes
  • perforation of the GI tract with escape of gas, normal GI tract bacteria, and other contents into the abdominal cavity

Treatments to prevent or relieve bloating

Lifestyle changes

In many cases, the symptoms of abdominal bloating can be diminished or even prevented by adopting a few simple lifestyle changes such as losing weight, if you’re overweight.

To reduce swallowing too much air, you can:

  • Avoid chewing gum. Chewing gum can cause you to swallow extra air, which in turn can lead to bloating.
  • Limit your intake of carbonated drinks.
  • Avoid foods that cause gas, such vegetables in the cabbage family, dried beans, and lentils.
  • Eat slowly and avoid drinking through a straw.
  • Use lactose-free dairy products (if you are lactose intolerant).

Probiotics may also help with repopulating healthy gut bacteria. Research is mixed on the effectiveness of probiotics. One review found that probiotics have a moderate effect, with a 70-percent agreement on its effect on bloating relief. You can find probiotics in kefir and Greek yogurt.

Massages

Abdominal massages may also help reduce abdominal bloating. One study looked at 80 people with ascites and assigned them 15-minute abdominal massages twice a day for three days. The results showed that massages improved depression, anxiety, well-being, and perceived abdominal bloating symptoms.

Medications

Talk to your doctor if lifestyle changes and dietary interventions don’t relieve abdominal bloating. If your doctor finds a medical cause for your bloating, they may recommend medical treatments. Treatments may require antibiotics, antispasmodics, or antidepressants, but it also depends on your condition.

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