Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on May 18, 2021
We’ve all felt it: that too-full feeling you get in your belly. But it’s not always from eating too much. Does your body hold on to too much water? Is it something you ate? Or could a health issue be behind it?
Too Much Gas? Probably Not
Most people who think they’re bloated because they have gas are just more sensitive to it. This is usually related to a health condition. Possible causes include irritable bowel syndrome (when nerves linked to your bowel are too active), acid reflux (which irritates your esophagus, the tube between your throat and stomach), and hemorrhoids. Talk to your doctor if you think you have gas often.
Your body needs this, but most of us get more than we need. It makes you hold on to -- or retain -- water and can cause more serious health problems like high blood pressure. And it’s not just the saltshaker you should avoid: If you’re like many Americans, most of your salt comes from prepackaged and fast foods. Check food labels for salt (sodium) levels and remember: Just because you don’t taste it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Too Many Carbs
Carbohydrates give your body fuel it can use quickly. But too many at once can make you retain water. And the faster the carbs get into your blood, the more likely that is. Simple carbs -- white bread, candy, pastries, and soft drinks -- enter your blood almost instantly. Complex carbs -- whole grains, fruits, and vegetables -- don’t because they take longer to digest.
Well, here’s an easy one. Your stomach is only about the size of your fist. It can stretch, but that can make you feel bloated, especially if you eat lots of salty food and carbs. One tip is to stop eating before you feel full.
Those bubbles in soda and other drinks like beer, champagne, or seltzer are filled with gas. When you drink them, they can fill up your digestive system. You may burp some of it away, but once the gas reaches your intestines, it stays until you pass it. And most sodas are full of sugar, which can make you hold on to water and feel bloated.
You Eat Too Fast
The faster you eat, the more air you swallow. And like with bubbly drinks, once that air passes to your intestine, it can make you feel bloated. It can take 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain you’re full, so you can eat enough to make yourself bloated and uncomfortable before your brain gets the message.
Most people are a little irregular from time to time, and that can make you feel bloated. Some foods can cause it, along with not drinking enough water, sudden changes in your diet, or stress. It usually passes on its own, but exercise and over-the-counter drugs can help. See your doctor if it lasts more than a few days.
Foods like milk and ice cream can cause gas, belly pain, and bloating if your body can’t easily digest a dairy sugar called lactose. It’s not usually serious, but it’s a good idea to avoid milk products. Some medicines can help you digest it more easily. This is not the same as an allergy to dairy, where your body’s immune system treats it like a dangerous invader. That can be more serious, causing hives, vomiting, and bloody stools.
If you’ve gained 10 or more pounds in the past year, you may feel bloated because that weight often goes on around your belly. That takes up space and leaves less room for your stomach to stretch. Talk with your doctor about a plan to help you lose that weight and be more comfortable.
This is a kind of sugar, and it’s harder for your body to break down than other kinds. That can lead to gas, bloating, and pain. It’s in lots of foods in the form of “high fructose corn syrup,” and it happens naturally in some like fruit (especially dried fruit) as well as honey, onions, and garlic. A food diary can help you keep track of how you feel after you eat certain foods and figure out if this is a problem for you.
Your body needs it to make cell walls, nerve tissue (like your brain), and hormones. But too much can make you bloated because your body takes longer to break it down than other types of food. That means it sticks around longer. It’s also high in calories and can make you gain weight if you’re not careful -- and that can make you feel bloated, too.
A condition called premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, can make some women feel tired, achy, and irritable the week or so before their period. It also makes you hold on to water, which can make you feel bloated. The cause is unclear, but hormones seem to play a part. It can help to exercise and stay away from salt, sugar, and simple carbs.
These carbs are digested near the end of your intestine, where bacteria feed on them. For some people, this can cause gas and fluid buildup, belly pain, and bloating. FODMAPs are in some fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy -- asparagus, garlic, pears, mangoes, peaches, wheat pasta, and rye bread are examples. Keep a food diary to keep track of foods that affect you, and ask a dietitian or doctor if FODMAPs might be to blame.
This is when your body responds to gluten -- a protein in wheat, barley, rye, and many prepackaged foods -- by attacking the lining of your intestine (part of your digestive system). It can cause diarrhea, weight loss, pain in the belly area, and lots of gas, which can make you feel bloated. There’s no cure, but you can manage your symptoms if you stay away from foods that have gluten.
When Is It Serious?
Most of the time, you can manage bloating on your own. But if you also feel weak or lose your appetite, or have diarrhea, weight loss, fever, belly pain, or blood in your stool, talk to your doctor. To find out what’s going on, they may take a stool sample or an X-ray of your small intestine, or test you for lactose intolerance or celiac disease.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology: “Milk & Dairy Allergy.”
British Nutrition Foundation: “Understanding satiety: feeling full after a meal.”
Cleveland Clinic: “Feel Bloated? 5 Odd Reasons for Your Stomach Pain,” “Constipation: 6 Ways to Unblock Yourself.”
Harvard Health Publications: “Is fructose bad for you?”
Mayo Clinic: “Water retention: Relieve this premenstrual symptom,” “Premenstrual syndrome (PMS).”
Nemours Foundation: “What Are Fat and Calories?”
NIH: “Low-FODMAP Diet for Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome,” “Functional Abdominal Bloating with Distention,” “AgePage: Concerned About Constipation?”
UpToDate: “Patient education: Celiac disease in adults (Beyond the Basics),” “Patient education: Gas and bloating (Beyond the Basics).”