Find out how to get rid of a bloated stomach here

As hard as we strive to accept ourselves, a bloated stomach is an annoyance that we just want to go away. And that’s not just so we can squeeze into our favourite jeans: bloating can indicate a variety of health problems and food intolerances. So, what can cause it and - more pressingly - how can you help minimise it?

What causes bloating in the stomach?

“To know which approach to take to relieve bloating, it’s first important to discover what is causing your bloating,” says nutritional therapist Rachel Larkin. “Usually bloating occurs when there’s excess gas produced in the gut, but it can also be linked to the movement of the muscles within the gut that transport digested food through your system. When the transit time is increased, partially digested food can remain in the gut and start to break down which can result in excess gas,” she explains.

Nutritional therapist Caroline Peyton is keen to distinguish between bloating in the stomach and bloating in the lower abdomen (bloating that you feel below your stomach button). “​​Bloating in the stomach is often due to low stomach acidity that delays the digestion of foods (mainly proteins) causing fermentation and gas,” Caroline says. Low stomach acidity happens “as we get older and when we’re stressed,” she explains. “Bloating in the lower abdomen can be due to an imbalance between beneficial and pathogenic bacteria (the bacteria that causes disease),” she says. “These pathogenic bacteria can feed off partially digested food and this creates gas and bloating.” If your bloating symptoms persist, consult your GP to rule out a more serious condition. There can be a number of medical causes of regular bloating episodes such as coeliac disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Bloating with a persistent feeling of fullness is also a symptom of ovarian cancer.

What relieves bloating fast?

“There are many over the counter medications that can relieve bloating once it starts, but ongoing use of these can affect your natural digestive processes,” says Rachel. Whilst these products can relieve bloating, she recommends trying to avoid bloating before it starts by eating smaller meals, eating slowly and chewing thoroughly, and avoiding the foods that cause bloating”. It’s a good idea to keep a food diary and make a note when you’re most bloated after certain meals or foods.

Caroline agrees, explaining that mindful eating “stimulates the vagus nerve in the brain sending a message to the stomach” to produce the gastric juices needed to digest a meal, which then reduces the low stomach acidity that can cause bloating.

As for relieving lower abdomen bloating, Caroline recommends ensuring a slow and gradual increase in fibre in your diet with a great variety of types and colours of fruits and vegetables. “However, be careful if you feel some fibrous foods, like onions and garlic make things worse,” she warns. Caroline also suggests reviewing (and potentially reducing) your intake of foods that people are often intolerant of – like lactose and gluten – to help prevent bloating. If the bloating has already begun, it may help to “massage the lower abdomen in a clockwise direction to help stimulate movement around the colon”.

What foods cause bloating?  

Foods associated with bloating include:

• Beans and legumes

• Cauliflower

• Onions

• Broccoli

• Cabbage

• Sprouts

“For some people,” says Rachel, “this can happen more often when they’re raw rather than when they’ve been cooked.” Common food intolerances (and you might have more than one of them) that bloating can be linked to are lactose, fructose, eggs, wheat and gluten. “Keeping a food diary can help you identify which are the triggers,” suggests Rachel. Lastly, some people are sensitive to “sweeteners found in sugar-free foods such as xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol, and they can have a laxative effect too,” Rachel says. “Although you have the benefit of reducing your sugar intake, these sweeteners may disrupt the balance of the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut as gas is produced when digesting these compounds.”

What to eat when constipated & bloated?

“It’s often advised to eat more fibre when you’re constipated but it needs to be a combination of both soluble and insoluble fibre,” says Rachel. So, what’s the difference? “Soluble fibre is found in foods such as oats, apples and citrus fruits, carrots, and barley,” Rachel explains. “Insoluble fibre helps move things along and this is found in nuts and beans and vegetables such as broccoli,” she continues. “If you’re constipated it’s important to increase your fibre intake cautiously because too much can make bloating worse.”

Finally, “drinking more water and movement, such as going for a brisk walk, are also thought to help with constipation,” Rachel says.

What else can cause someone to bloat aside from food?

“If you’re someone who eats on the move, very quickly or whilst talking then you can swallow air whilst you eat which can lead to bloating,” Rachel warns. “Fizzy drinks can also have this effect.” Then, there’s the fact that “one of the key symptoms of IBS is bloating,” she adds.

When is bloating a cause for concern?

“For women, if bloating is particularly persistent and accompanied by a constant feeling of fullness, then it’s important to contact your GP to rule out other causes such as ovarian cancer,” says Rachel.

Why do women bloat more on their periods?

“When women experience bloating before and during their period it’s usually due to water retention rather than gas production,” Rachel says. “Water retention will not just cause bloating in the abdominal area, but some women will notice their face may be a little puffy, and their jeans and trousers are tighter too,” she continues. “Although some women do experience digestive disruptions around the start of their period, these, and other symptoms, are linked to changes in progesterone and oestrogen during the luteal phase of your cycle, which is between ovulation and before your period starts.”

“Some things you can do that may help water retention are: reduce salt intake, drink more water (this may seem counterintuitive, but it can help your body release excess water), reduce alcohol and coffee intake, and exercise.”

Why is good gut health important?

“Well, firstly, gas produced by the bacteria in the intestine is a major contributor to bloating,” says Rachel. “We each have a unique composition of gut bacteria, known as the gut microbiota, with some strains considered ‘good’ and some ‘bad’. Food intolerances have been linked to imbalances in the gut microbiota,” she continues.

Factors that can affect imbalances in the gut microbiota include:

• Medications

• High sugar diet

• High fat diet

• Stress

• Lack of sleep

“A well-balanced gut microbiota will lead to more effective digestion. Increasing the levels of ‘good’ bacteria can be done through having a healthy diet with plenty of plant-based foods as well as natural yoghurt and kefir, and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and tempeh,” Rachel advises.