What causes a bloated stomach?
When our stomach is empty, it is about the size of a clenched fist. However, the design and structure of the stomach allows it to increase in shape and size to accommodate what we eat.
It is important to note that it may not be the stomach that is experiencing the bloating, although this is possible if we have overeaten. Both the small intestine and large intestine may be where you experience the bloating after a meal, and this may occur soon after eating or could take several hours to appear.
1. Food and lifestyle factors
Our lifestyles and dietary choices will influence our gut and how it functions and feels. Inactivity, being over-weight, weak abdominal muscles and even psychological issues, including stress, can influence how effectively our digestion processes the food we eat. For some, certain foods can trigger symptoms – artificial sweeteners, dairy, some starchy foods and even certain vegetables can potentially be triggers. Or maybe alcohol is aggravating your symptoms? If this sounds familiar, keep a food diary and record the food you eat and your corresponding symptoms – be prepared to discuss this with a medical professional before making any changes to the foods you eat. Do not eliminate food groups without professional guidance, as this may lead to nutritional deficiencies.
Constipation is a common problem, affecting approximately one in seven people, and is especially common among young women and the elderly. Lack of exercise, a diet low in fibre and fluids, a change to dietary routine, pregnancy, hormonal changes and stress may all play a part. Simple changes to your diet and lifestyle including increasing your fibre intake, as long as you stick to it consistently, may lead to significant improvements.
3. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS is one of the most common causes of bloating and affects one in five people at some stage in their lives. Symptoms include cramping, bloating and distension as well as excess gas. Bowel movements can also vary with IBS: diarrhoea or constipation or both.
Treatment varies depending on the symptoms, but dietary changes and the addition of probiotic and prebiotic foods, reducing sugar and alcohol, and limiting processed foods may be effective. While the cause of IBS is not known, stress can be a trigger so effective stress-management techniques could also help relieve symptoms.
Some IBS sufferers find certain carbohydrates more difficult to digest and for these people following a supervised low FODMAP diet, under the watchful eye of a trained dietitian or nutritionist may help.
4. Food intolerances
An intolerance or sensitivity to a food occurs when our digestive system struggles to fully break down a food. A common example is lactose, the sugar naturally found in milk (one of the FODMAPs). This can be difficult for some people to digest because they lack the digestive enzyme, lactase, which we need to break down and absorb lactose. Any undigested lactose may be fermented in the gut by bacteria, and this can cause bloating, abdominal cramps and possibly diarrhoea.
Older people and those from certain ethnic groups are more likely to be lactose intolerant although a stomach bug may also, temporarily, reduce the production of lactase. If you suspect this is a problem consult your GP, who will be able to correctly diagnose whether this is an issue for you.
5. Coeliac disease
Gluten, the protein in certain grains including wheat, rye and barley, triggers an auto-immune reaction in those people with coeliac disease. This immune reaction leads to the damage of the intestinal wall and reduces the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. As a consequence, people with coeliac disease may experience nausea, stomach pains and bloating, and will more than likely be lacking in certain nutrients, such as iron and calcium.
If you suspect this may be a problem, visit your GP, but don’t change your diet until you have been assessed and received a positive diagnosis. If you are diagnosed with coeliac disease then a strict gluten-free diet will encourage the recovery of your gut wall – this should minimise bloating and, over time, resolve the symptoms you are experiencing.
More like this
Grains which may safely be eaten include rice, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and sorghum. Visit our gluten-free recipe collection for more ideas.
6. Changes in your gut bacteria
Most of your gut bacteria, also known as gut microbiome, is found in your large intestines, and it is home to trillions of bacteria that help regulate our digestion, among one of its many roles. However, several factors can decrease the abundance of our microbiome, including sugar, alcohol, a lack of fibre or fruits and vegetables, poor sleep and stress.
If you have a reduced microbiome, when you then have something to eat, you do not have enough bacteria to naturally break down your food, and this can cause bloating as a result.
How to get rid of bloating
The solution to resolve your bloating will depend on the causes and potential triggers. For some sufferers, smaller, more frequent meals and excluding known food culprits may be enough, while for others, adding probiotic (yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh) and prebiotic foods (asparagus, chicory, onion, garlic, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes) may help ease symptoms.
Those with IBS symptoms may find relief from the use of peppermint oil or drinking peppermint tea. Peppermint is an anti-spasmodic and can help relieve muscle spasms, and some studies have shown it to be a useful strategy to relieve bloating.
Another natural option is to use ginger as an ingredient because of its anti-sickness, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.
Probiotic supplements may also be of benefit to some, as these help to repopulate the gut microbiome.
When should you see your doctor?
If your symptoms persist, get worse over time or are accompanied by weight loss, abdominal pain, changes in bowel habits or blood in the stool, consult your GP. This is important because bloating may be a symptom of a more serious problem, including ovarian cancer.
For low FODMAP recipes, browse our collection of recipes.
This recipe supplies resistant starch which acts as a soluble, fermentable fibre which feeds beneficial gut bacteria.
This recipe supplies resistant starch (in the oats) and soluble fibre in both the oats and butternut squash, along with beta-carotene for healthy intestinal membranes.
This breakfast choice is rich in fibre, and combined with probiotic yogurt makes for a great gut-loving breakfast.
Enjoy calming and anti-inflammatory ingredients such as ginger and turmeric, along with prebiotic vegetables including onion.
Enjoy anti-inflammatory (omega-3) salmon and fennel, which is thought to help relieve bloating.
Classic fresh mint tea may ease and calm digestion.
Try this dinner dish with calming ingredients, including ginger, anti-inflammatory (omega-3) salmon and beta-carotene and fibre-rich sweet potatoes.
This dish contains omega-3 from salmon, which is anti-inflammatory, tarragon for easing digestive issues and lemon for stimulating gastric juices to aid digestion.
Cumin aids digestion, white fish is a lean protein considered to be easy to digest, while coriander supports appetite and digestion. This dish contains prebiotic vegetables (such as onion), too.
Asparagus is a prebiotic vegetable supplying inulin for beneficial gut bacteria health.
Anti-inflammatory ginger, mint and cumin are present in this vegetarian dish, along with fibre from wholegrain rice and vegetables and probiotic yogurt.
This dish contains digestive supportive mint and probiotic yogurt.
This flavour-packed dip contains digestive supportive mint and basil as well as probiotic yogurt.
Enjoy a combination of digestive supportive herbs in this side dish.
This recipe contains digestive supportive mint, ginger and probiotic yogurt.
Combine probiotic yogurt, fibre from kiwi, and cinnamon which has been linked with relieving nausea and stomach cramping.
Do you have a favourite gut-healthy recipe? Let us know in the comments below.
This article was last reviewed on 15 December 2022.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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