Abdominal bloating is one of those things that everyone experiences, probably more often than they’d like – a protruding, distended belly feels uncomfortable and doesn’t look very appealing. Bloating occurs from a buildup of gases in the intestines, and in most cases is natural and harmless, although it may be a symptom of a more serious condition.
Bloating happens when gases – not fluids, as some people think – accumulate in the stomach and intestines and aren’t able to pass; when you’re able to belch, pass gas, or have a bowel movement, it helps relieve the bloating. In some cases, the stomach is merely visibly protruding, but you may also find that this is accompanied by pain that ranges from a mild, dull ache to a sharper, more intense sensation.
So what causes gas to build up? Many things, from diet to lack of exercise to food allergies. Constipation is one common source, often due to a diet too low in fiber, too little water, and not enough exercise; increasing these in gradual amounts can help everything move more smoothly. Certain foods, even healthy ones, are more likely to lead to gas: cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, brussels sprouts, and broccoli, fruits like apples and pears, beans, and onions are some examples. Less healthy foods can also be to blame, and the most common culprits are carbonated drinks (especially soda), which trap the carbonation and gas in the intestines; chewing gum, which not only causes you to swallow more air than you normally would, but also contains artificial sugars that cause bloating; and hard candies, for the same reasons.
In most cases, bloating is normal and the gas buildup will be relieved through belching or passing gas. Taking time to eat more slowly, avoiding straws, carbonated drinks, and chewing gum, while maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen are all ways to easily manage normal bloating. However, for some people bloating may become problematic and may indicate a more serious condition: Excessive bloating that doesn’t resolve on its own or comes with persistent or severe abdominal pain, changes in bowel movements (frequency or consistency), diarrhea, constipation, and bloody stools are all more serious symptoms. Food allergies such as celiac disease or lactose intolerance may be to blame, or it could be a digestive disorder or blocked bowel; see a doctor for examination and diagnosis.