What happens when you bloat?

Everybody bloats sometimes. For many people, bloating is something that happens occasionally and doesn’t make a huge impact on daily life. But for some, it can be uncomfortable and even embarrassing. So if you’re wondering why you feel bloated and if there are ways to avoid it, let’s dive in.

What is bloating?

Bloating is when you have too much solid, liquid and/or gas in your digestive system. This is different to water retention (excess water trapped in the body’s tissues), although some people use the two terms interchangeably.

When you feel bloated, you typically have some level of discomfort in the abdominal area. This may be higher, around the stomach, or it could be lower, around the intestines. 

Why do I get bloated?

This depends, as there can be a number of contributing factors. All of these add more gas, liquid and/or solids into your digestive tract, leading to the full, uncomfortable sensation of bloating.

Let’s look at some common causes of bloating:

Swallowing air – we all swallow some air as part of everyday life. But if you eat or drink too fast, talk while you eat, chew gum or smoke, you may have a build-up of swallowed air that makes you feel bloated. Some people also swallow air as a coping mechanism for their anxiety.

Carbonated drinks – another way of adding gas to the digestive tract is by consuming carbonated or fizzy drinks. A good amount of the gas is likely to be expelled via burping. But some will still reach further down the digestive tract and lead to a sensation of bloating.

Eating too much in one sitting – the human stomach can only accommodate so much food before it has to stretch! As it takes time for the food to pass through the digestive tract, it can cause you to feel bloated in the meantime.

Drinking too much at once can also have a similar effect, although it is less common. But if you chug down a litre of water because you realise you forgot to drink anything during the day, you’re likely to feel the bloat!

Constipation – the digestive tract is essentially a tube – what goes in needs to come back out to make room for more. But if you’re constipated, there can be a build-up of gas, fluid and other food behind the unpassed stool. This can fill up the digestive tract and cause bloating.

Food intolerances – when you consume a food that you’re intolerant to, your gut will not be able to digest and absorb it properly. This leads to fermentation and gas production in the gut, causing you to bloat. 

It may be a food intolerance you’re aware of, or it could be undiagnosed. If you suspect you have a food intolerance, it’s best to seek advice from your healthcare practitioner.

Digestive conditions – conditions that affect the gut such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), Coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) can cause bloating. 

The exact mechanism that causes bloating depends on the specific condition. In many cases, the exact processes are still unknown, although it likely involves inflammation, imbalances in the gut microbiome, and poor digestion of food.

In some rare cases, bloating can be a warning sign of a growth in the digestive tract that is causing issues. It can also be an early sign of ovarian cancer. But in most cases, it is something quite simple and related to what you’ve consumed and how you’ve consumed it.

The good news is that many of the contributing factors to bloating can be alleviated or removed. Depending on your specific situation, this could mean:

  • Eating slowly and mindfully
  • Serving up smaller portions and waiting before eating more
  • Avoiding foods you know you have an intolerance to
  • Working with your healthcare practitioner to manage any constipation, unknown food intolerance or digestive conditions

Is bloating always a bad thing?

Not at all – sometimes it can be simply because you ate too much food or drank too much water in one go! If this is the case, the bloating should go down within a couple of hours as your body processes the food.

You can also experience bloating when increasing beneficial foods. For example, if you increase your fibre intake suddenly, bloating is a common side effect.

However, if you have recurring bloating or if comes along with other symptoms such as pain, it’s worth investigating. If you’re concerned, start by having a chat with your healthcare professional.

Want to learn more about the factors that affect your gut health? Explore our huge range of gut health articles