Occasional abdominal distention, or bloating, is a part of normal digestion as is the release of air into the esophagus, or burping. Eating too fast, drinking carbonated beverages, smoking and chewing gum may all contribute to swallowed air and increased burping. Excessive bloating and burping are usually symptoms of poor digestion, a lack of enzymes, or an early warning sign of digestive disease or infection. Symptoms of nausea, vomiting, weight loss, abdominal or rectal pain, bleeding, or fever should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
Lactose is a naturally occurring sugar in cow's milk and milk products. Lactase, the enzyme responsible for digesting milk sugar, is deficient in many people. Those of African or Asian descent may lack this enzyme; others may become deficient with age. The ingestion of milk by lactose intolerant people results in symptoms of gastric distress. Many who are lactose intolerant do not experience unpleasant symptoms from consuming fermented milk products, such as yogurt and kefir. These products may actually improve digestion due to the action of probiotics, or friendly bacteria. Soy products do not contain lactose. Lactase is available in pills or liquid form over-the-counter and may be added to milk. Baby formula is available in lactose-free varieties.
At least two dozen digestive enzymes are needed to break down food particles for storage in the liver and muscles. The body produces fewer enzymes as it ages, and its stores can be depleted by a diet of highly processed foods. Digestive enzymes are divided into three main categories: amylase, protease and lipase. Amylase breaks down carbohydrates. Protease is needed to digest proteins, and lipase acts on fats. According to nutritionist Phyllis Balch, author of "Prescription for Nutritional Healing," eating carbohydrates, proteins and fats in the same meal is more likely to result in the production of gases because some digestive enzymes inhibit the actions of others. Drink liquids between meals to prevent the dilution of valuable enzymes. Sprouts are a rich source of enzymes, which are high in fresh plant foods and are destroyed by cooking. Digestive enzyme supplements are available in health food stores.
Bloating and burping may signal the onset of gastrointestinal diseases that interfere with the structure and function of the digestive tract. Peptic ulcers are caused by Helicobacter pylori, also called H. pylori, bacteria in the stomach. Treatment with medication is highly effective. Diverticulosis is the formation of pouches in the lining of the bowel and is associated with chronic constipation. Inflammatory bowel disease is a group of conditions that cause redness and swelling in the digestive tract. Blockages, constipation or diarrhea can result.
Bloating and burping may also be a symptom of Celiac disease. The National Institute for Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases defines Celiac disease as an abnormal immune response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley or rye. Cilia, finger-like projections that line the small intestine, are destroyed when gluten is ingested. A strict gluten-free diet is the only treatment for Celiac disease. The condition is genetically linked and is more common in people of Northern European descent.