How Much Bloating Is Too Much Bloating?
You know the balloon-like feeling all too well: the swelling, the pressure, and the discomfort. It’s yet another evening with a bloated stomach, and you’re starting to wonder if this is normal.
“In an extremely healthy, high-functioning digestive system, frequent bloat is not normal,” explains Dana Ellis Hunnes, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., a senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center and author of the upcoming book Recipe for Survival. She quickly adds, however, that this isn’t the case for most people. On average, someone with “normal” gut health might experience “small amounts every few days or so.”
Here’s what you need to know about why you’re getting a bloated belly and what you can do about it.
Why Is My Stomach Bloating?
Simply put: our digestive tracts can be sensitive sometimes. There are a number of reasons you could be bloated, and more than one could be contributing at a time. These are the big three.
According to Hunnes, a significant change in your diet can cause bloating, and is relatively easy to identify if it’s the root cause of the issue. Otherwise, according to Emily Tills, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N, dietary causes of bloating may alternatively include a higher sodium intake, lower water intake, or increased fiber intake.
She also notes the importance of knowing the difference between actual bloat and your stomach expanding normally. “Our G.I. tracts are muscles,” Tills says, and “they have to expand to start doing their work.”
Bloating can also be caused by everyday habits, which you may want to examine if you’re experiencing distention regularly. Chewing too much gum and drinking from a straw, for instance, can cause you to swallow more air, which can then find its way into the digestive tract, Hunnes says, and cause bloating.
Swelling can also be triggered by factors outside of what you’re doing and ingesting. According to Hunnes, while diet is the biggest culprit, bloating can also be related to “any stressors your body is currently experiencing.”
What Can I Do to Help With a Bloated Stomach?
Bloating “usually resolves within two to three hours” Tills says. But if you’d like to ease the pressure without waiting it out, there are easy strategies you can use.
Drink more water
If you know you’ve had less water or more salt than usual, correcting that by drinking more water can sometimes be enough to fix the problem, explains Tills.
Use the bathroom
When your stomach is feeling uncomfortable, often the simplest solution is the most obvious: If you can use the restroom, do. This might help alleviate any of the unwanted pressure.
Walk it off
“I’ve found that slow, gentle walking may help,” Hunnes adds. Post-meal walking and certain medications both helped ease symptoms of gastrointestinal discomfort in one study’s participants. But by the end of the study period, it was the participants who routinely took a 10- to 15-minute walk after eating who reported overall improvements to symptoms associated with bloating.
When Should I See a Doctor About Bloating?
“Bloating is generally painless and resolves with time,” explains Tills. But if that’s not true of your bloating, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. You should also see an M.D. “if your stomach feels rock hard, you have time passing stool, or have excess gassiness,” she adds.
But you don’t have to hit these criteria to talk to a medical professional. You’re entirely justified in seeing a professional if your bloating “is debilitating and prevents you from doing your normal daily routines,” Hunnes says. That includes work, movement, eating, and sleeping. If you’re constantly feeling full to the point at which you’re unintentionally experiencing weight loss, that calls for a doctor’s opinion as well.
If, however, you’re experiencing severe, sharp pains that would rate as a nine to 10 on a 10-point scale, it’s time to get immediate medical attention, according to Hunnes. These pains mean what you thought was bloating “could be your appendix or your pancreas,” she adds.