5 common reasons you have a bloated stomach – and how to treat it
We’ve all had that uncomfortable feeling when our belly swells up and feels like it could burst at any point. But unfortunately for some, a bloated stomach is a regular occurrence.
Digestive problems are very common in the UK – the NHS says around 40% of people will suffer from at least one digestive symptom in their lifetime.
So what’s causing our bloated stomach? “Factors can include excess gas in the bowel, fluid retention and constipation,” explains GP and healthy expert Dr Rob Hicks.
“Most bloating comes and goes and is not a risk to a person’s health, but it can make life miserable.”
It’s always worth seeking expert advice from your GP if you have a persistent problem, but these are some of the most common causes.
Read more: 5 ways to beat bloating
A bloated stomach can be caused by the body taking on and holding on to too much gas.
“There may be a lot of gas in the bowel because a person is constipated and so it can’t get through properly,” explains Dr Hicks.
“A person may be gobbling down their food and talking at the same time, so swallowing a lot of air. Or perhaps they’re eating a very high-fibre diet, so there’s more fermentation, which creates gas.”
Certain gas-producing foods can exacerbate the problem too, including cabbage, Brussels sprouts, beans and lentils.
Pre-menstrual bloating is common, and this is due to changes in hormonal levels.
“In the build up to a period, the surge in the hormone progesterone tends to relax everything in the body,” says Dr Hicks.
“The bowel becomes much more sluggish and less likely to push the motions through and out the other end. It’s the reason why women get constipated in pregnancy. Secondly, hormones also cause fluid retention.”
Read more: 10 ways to get through PMS
3. Food intolerance
“A bloated stomach can be a symptom of some specific food sensitivities, such as lactose intolerance,” Dr Hicks explains.
This common digestive problem occurs when the body is unable to digest lactose, a sugar mainly found in dairy products like milk.
Another is known as coeliac disease – an adverse reaction to gluten which is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.
It causes the small intestine to flare up and become unable to absorb nutrients.
It is recommended you keep a food diary of what you eat and drink before visiting your GP if you suspect you have a food intolerance. Your doctor will then be able to test you for either problem.
One of the common symptoms for IBS sufferers is a bloated stomach.
Not a great deal is known about the life-long condition, but its causes are thought to be linked to how quickly or slowly food passes through the gut, having an oversensitive gut, or stress.
“Clues you may have IBS include also having stomach cramping, constipation or diarrhoea (or alternating between both),” says Dr Hicks.
5. Ovarian cancer
Symptoms of ovarian cancer are vague, though there are some common signs to look out for.
“Chronic bloating in women is one of the key symptoms of ovarian cancer,” says Dr Hicks. Others include frequent abdominal pain and and urinary problems.
The NHS recommends seeing your GP if you’ve felt bloated for at least three weeks. It is unlikely you have cancer, though it is of course best to check.
Why does it affect me?
“Our genes control how we react to body changes,” says Dr Hicks. “For instance, some women are more sensitive than others to fluctuations in hormones that lead to bloating during their menstrual cycle.”
Stress also has an effect. “When we’re stressed and anxious, we often turn to unhealthy comfort food, which takes longer to digest. We’re also less likely to be active, which slows down the action of the bowel. Also, if we drink a lot of alcoholic beverages such as beer, we’re more likely to produce gas,” he says.
In some people, being stressed or anxious also directly slows down the activity of the bowel.
How to ease the pressure of your bloated stomach at home
“Try to identify what’s triggering your bloating, then you can deal with the cause,” says Dr Hicks. “If nothing is jumping out at you, chart your symptoms in a diary.”
He suggests doing this in parallel with general lifestyle adjustments:
1. Eat more fibre
It makes gas but also keeps the bowel moving – most of us don’t eat enough.
2. Drink lots of liquid
Just not fizzy or alcoholic drinks.
3. Eat slowly
And don’t talk while eating, to avoid excess air entering your body.
Regular exercise is thought to help maintain your digestive system.
5. Keep stress under control
The NHS says stress can cause digestive issues.
6. Go to the loo when you need to
It’s important to respond to the call of Mother Nature straight away. Otherwise you lose the urge and stools and gas build up.
7. Peppermint tea
If you think your bloating is due to pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), Dr Hicks says peppermint could help disperse gas.
8. Cut your salt intake
Dr Atkinson says that salt causes fluid retention, which can cause bloating.For fluid retention, also try primrose oil, vitamins E and B6.
9. Natural remedies
“Slippery elm (capsules or powder) is good,” says medical herbalist Dee Atkinson. “The benefits of this powdered bark include soothing inflammation. If constipation is the problem, psyllium husks act as a gentle laxative and work well with slippery elm.”
You can also try a probiotic supplement. “This may help regulate gas production,” says Dr Hicks.