Here's What's Actually Happening When You're Bloated

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Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.

Nearly everyone has dealt with the dreaded “belly bloat.” Even if you haven’t, you’ve heard about it: There are entire books devoted to the topic, and countless other articles already out there about ways to “beat the bloat.”

Bloating is a very common symptom that can, in some cases, reveal underlying health issues. But we tend to say we “feel bloated” when we simply mean “full.” And, unfortunately, “I’m so bloated” has become a problematic code phrase in our society for “I’m feeling fat today” — as if that were a bad thing. Worse, a lot of the popular advice about bloating that exists takes advantage of these body anxieties and ignores the fact that bloating is what’s supposed to happen.

Your stomach is designed to withstand changes. In addition to being squished and contorted as you move around and wear tight-fitting clothes, your stomach will naturally expand to accommodate your meals. “Your belly is going to get distended during the day normally,” explains Felice Schnoll-Sussman, MD, a gastroenterologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital. “It happens to everyone... but some people are extra sensitive to that.”

“Bloating is a very general term,” she continues. But what doctors mean when they talk about bloating is often very different from what the rest of us mean.

First off, bloating isn’t just feeling full. “Bloating is typically related to a sense of gassiness and abdominal discomfort,” Dr. Schnoll-Sussman says. “Some people also see abdominal distension, but others don’t.”

Sometimes the cause can be traced back to an imbalance of bacteria. If you’ve taken a course of antibiotics recently, for instance, the bacteria responsible for breaking down some types of complex carbohydrates may be out of whack. So you may feel a bit bloated after eating foods that contain those carbs, such as beans and lentils, because these bacteria produce gas as part of the natural digestion process. But the two main causes of bloating are swallowing too much air (which ends up in your intestines) and eating large meals too quickly (which backs everything up). Constipation also tends to go hand-in-hand with bloating. “Our GI tract is basically plumbing,” explains Dr. Schnoll-Sussman. “There’s a top and a bottom. And what goes in must, at some point, come out.” So, if you’re constipated, she says, there may be a buildup of gas and fluid behind the (ahem) blockage that’s making you feel bloated on top of not being able to poop.

The key to dealing with bloating is first knowing what’s normal for you, as there are a few cases in which bloating can be a sign of something more serious. “The most important thing is getting a sense of whether or not this is something new,” says Dr. Schnoll-Sussman. If you’ve had GI issues your whole life, that might just be a characteristic of your individual system. But if you’re noticing a recent change in the way your tummy feels — especially if you haven’t changed anything about your diet — that could be a red flag.

“The key to dealing with bloating is first knowing what’s normal for you, as there are a few cases in which bloating can be a sign of something more serious.”

In the most serious scenarios, persistent bloating can be a result of a (possibly cancerous) growth in the GI tract that’s blocking things up. Bloating is also one of very few early warning signs for ovarian cancer. (Ovarian cancer is rare, but any weird bloating can and should be investigated.) Remember, though, these aren’t cases where you’re feeling a little extra full and then all better the next day; here, you’ll most likely feel bloated, for no apparent reason, every day for weeks.

However, in the vast majority of cases, feeling bloated is a temporary annoyance and nothing to worry about in the long term. In fact, Dr. Schnoll-Sussman says that up to 10 percent of Americans report dealing with bloating on a regular basis.

Still, there’s no reason to be uncomfortable, and there are a few common habits that can make your bloating, and therefore your discomfort, worse. So, to that end, we collected a few tips for dealing with this gassy fact of life (minus the usual misinformation and diet tips masquerading as health advice). Click through to see a few ways to feel better if your bloat is bothering you — and strategies to prevent it in the first place.

Photo by Jens Ingvarsson.

Stretch It Out “Regular exercise can definitely make a difference in how you feel,” says Dr. Schnoll-Sussman. Indeed, staying active throughout your life can help keep your digestive system operating normally.

But if you’re feeling a little backed up right this second, it’s worth moving around. Even just going for a short walk after eating can encourage things to, um, progress.

And there are a few specific yoga stretches you can do to ease any pressure. In particular, Dr. Schnoll-Sussman suggests laying on your back and pulling one knee at a time (while the other leg lays flat). That puts a little extra pressure on your abdomen in order to aid digestion, she says.

Photographed by Katie Mccurdy.

Keep things loose. “Certainly if people wear tighter pants that can give them a sense of bloating because of the pressure,” says Dr. Schnoll-Sussman. In fact, your stomach will naturally get smooshed and distended throughout the day. But wearing constrictive clothes — including skinny jeans and too-tight bras — will make that normal pressure more noticeable. So if you’re a little extra gassy, or even if you’re not, you’ll definitely feel like it.

Instead, consider wearing looser-fitting clothes when possible or at least when you know you’re going to be eating a large, greasy (read: delicious) meal.

Photographed by Nicholas Bloise.

Skip the straw. One easily overlooked cause of gassiness is simply drinking through a straw, explains Dr. Schnoll-Sussman. “You drink a column of air first,” she says, “and that can be enough to make [you] feel distended.” So the answer here is pretty obvious: Avoid drinking through a straw, especially if you're someone who feels they are prone to that gassy feeling.

Photographed by Katie Mccury.

Sit down to eat. Taking your meals with you, or otherwise eating too quickly, is one of the main causes of uncomfortable bloating, either because you're overeating (because it's hard to pay attention to your natural fullness signals when you're also driving, for example) or because you're simply swallowing lots of air.

"People are eating in the car or while walking from one place to the other," says Dr. Schnoll-Sussman. "We’re eating too fast, and our bodies aren't getting a sense that we’re full."

Whenever possible, try to sit and mindfully enjoy your meals. In addition to helping you sidestep that bloated feeling, this is also a tried-and-true intuitive-eating tactic that can help you build a healthier relationship with food in general. For example, you may find that your food tastes better and that portion control works itself out once you start eating without distraction.

For more tips and tricks, visit Refinery29.

By: Sarah Jacoby

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