Bloating is uncomfortable. No doubt about that. And while you might understand having that ballooned feeling after you ate a particularly large or salty meal (here's looking at you, takeout sushi!), it's more perplexing when you can't tie bloating to a particular food.
But it's definitely possible.
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"Bloating is caused by the buildup of gas in the GI tract. It's usually accompanied by abdominal discomfort or pain, and bloating can also be associated with belching, a feeling of 'fullness' or flatulence," Monica S. Borkar, MD, a gastroenterologist with NorthShore University HealthSystem in Glenview, Illinois, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
That buildup of gas can be caused by a variety of non-food factors that can clue you into what's going on with your physical and mental health. Here's what may be behind your bloated, blah-y feeling.
1. You’re Not Handling Stress Well Right Now
Your GI tract is in constant communication with your brain — and vice versa. This happens along the gut-brain axis (GBA), a channel where the brain and nerves of the gut chat, Dr. Borkar says.
"Stress and anxiety cause the body to release the stress hormone cortisol, and that can contribute to bloating, as well as flatulence," she explains.
Banish bloating: During the pandemic, as life has been upended, you might be noticing more bloating. Unfortunately, at any time, stress is inevitable, but it's how you view stress that matters.
For example, changing your belief about stress may help you cope more effectively and avoid the ill-coping strategies that make it worse (like drinking), suggests a July 2020 study in Stress and Health.
Viewing stress as something that is a challenge — not threatening — and something that holds value in helping you get to your goals can help you reappraise stress as something potentially beneficial, the researchers say.
2. It’s a Sneaky Side Effect of Your Medication
Some medications can disrupt the bacterial balance in your gut, cause you to retain fluid, change digestive function or cause GI damage if taken long-term.
For one, opioid pain medications commonly cause constipation that brings about bloating, per April 2016 research in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain.
A few additional drugs on the list of bloat-causers, Dr. Borkar says, include steroids, antibiotics, birth control pills, aspirin, NSAIDs like ibuprofen and anti-diarrhea medications. Surprisingly, supplements like multivitamins or iron supplements can do it too, she says.
Banish bloating: Dr. Borkar's advice is to avoid fiber-rich foods and prioritize stress-reduction strategies if you're taking these medications on a short-term basis.
You can also talk to your doctor about whether there is an alternate medication you can switch to or a lower dose available. (But don't stop taking anything without getting the OK first.)
3. It’s a Gut Condition
You might have heard of something called diverticulosis, a condition where small pouches bulge through the large intestine, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Eating a diet that lacks fiber is believed to be one of the causes.
If these pouches are infected, then it's called diverticulitis — and one of the symptoms can be bloating, Dr. Borkar says. While it's traditionally found in older adults, past research indicates that plenty of younger people are affected by it, too.
Banish bloating: If you have diverticulitis, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or pain relievers. To treat and prevent it, ramp up your intake of fiber.
4. It’s an Infection
Dr. Borkar says that urinary tract infections (UTI) or an H. pylori infection of the stomach can also trigger bloating episodes.
H. pylori is a bacteria that causes peptic ulcers, per the Mayo Clinic. In addition to bloating, a bacterial infection can also cause nausea, burping and an abdominal ache or burning.
Banish bloating: See your doctor for the proper diagnosis as well as treatment, which may include antibiotics.
5. It’s Your Period
It's not just cramps and headaches that make this time of the month potentially unbearable. Thanks to fluctuations in the hormones estrogen and progesterone, you might notice that around and during your period, you're more bloated than usual, Dr. Borkar says.
Banish bloating: You might feel like hanging out on the couch with snacks on hand, but now is the time to focus on hydrating with water, eating fresh foods over salty and sugary processed fare and consuming smaller and more frequent meals, Dr. Borkar says.
"Exercising regularly is also extremely beneficial, as is making sure you're well-rested," she adds.
When to Call Your Doctor About Bloating
Occasional bloating — from food or otherwise — is totally normal. When you're assessing if yours is a sign that something more may be going on, think about if you have other symptoms, too.
Things like weight loss, fever, shortness of breath, GI bleeding (like when you wipe) or abdominal pain that affects your sleep all require a chat with your doctor, Dr. Borkar says.
Also, be on the lookout for symptoms that are new to you.
"New, persistent or worsening bloating are other signs that you should talk to your physician about your gut health," she says.
- Stress and Health: “Managing stress during the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic and beyond: Reappraisal and mindset approaches”
- Scandinavian Journal of Pain: “Opioid-induced constipation, use of laxatives, and health-related quality of life”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis”
- American Journal of Roetgenology: “CT and clinical features of actue diverticulitis in an urban U.S. population: rising frequency in young, obese adults”
- Mayo Clinic: “Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.