4 causes of bloating

It’s normal to suffer from a bit of bloating at some stage, but if your stomach regularly feels like a balloon, it may be time to take action.
Published 24 September 2017 | Updated 1 July 2024

How to prevent abdominal discomfort and bloating

Abdominal bloating occurs when pockets of air or gas build up or become trapped along the gastrointestinal tract, which includes the stomach and small and large intestines. Many people describe their stomachs as feeling swollen or hard as a drum, or they report feeling tight or full, with frequent bouts of passing gas, rumbling and gurgling, regurgitation or burping. The odd bout of bloating is normal, especially if you’re out of your regular routine, such as when you’re travelling, sick or just eating foods you don’t normally consume. But if your bloating is prolonged or uncomfortable, don’t just put up with it. There are things you can do to alleviate or prevent your symptoms. Here are the most common causes of bloating.

1/ Healthy bacteria

The gut microbiota (the microbes that live in the gut) are made up of trillions of microorganisms, some friendly and some less so. When all bacteria are working harmoniously, the gut is happy. However, when there is an imbalance of one type, symptoms such as bloating and diarrhoea may occur.

The do’s

  • Include healthy bacteria via yoghurt, fermented milk and probiotic drinks or supplements, especially if you have taken antibiotics, which kill off bad as well as healthy bacteria.
  • Eat a variety of vegetables at all meals to feed the friendly bacteria.
  • Try to add some fermented foods, such as kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh and pickles, into your diet.

The don’ts

  • Try to avoid taking several rounds of antibiotics.
  • Avoid highly refined foods.

2/ Food sensitivities

There are certain foods, such as baked beans, that produce more gas than other foods. As the food breaks down, some of the waste moves into the bowel, where it is fermented by bacteria. Most people experience more flatulence when consuming these foods. But for some, the bloating can be overwhelming and may be due to an inability to digest certain food groups. FODMAPs is an acronym for five food groups that can be hard for some people to fully digest and can cause bloating, pain, diarrhoea or constipation.

The do’s

  • Eat a balanced diet and keep a diary to record any bloating.
  • If bloating occurs regularly, talk to an accredited practising dietitian or your doctor.

The don’ts

  • Don’t self-diagnose.
  • Don’t cut out whole food groups without medical advice.
  • Don’t eat too much at once. This can cause bloating.

3/ Constipation

The bowels should be emptying regularly, preferably once or twice a day, removing waste from the digestive system. If bowel movements are irregular, hard to pass or very dry, this can cause gas to become trapped between stools and contribute to a distended, painful abdominal area.

The do’s

  • Include fresh fruit and plenty of salad and vegetables in your diet as fibre helps to move your bowels regularly.
  • Drink plenty of water, especially in the warmer months, to help soften stools to make them easy to pass.
  • Try to keep active to help move a sluggish intestine.

The don’ts

  • Avoid over-refined foods as they are almost fibre free.
  • Don’t become dehydrated. Liquids containing caffeine and alcohol can remove fluid from your body, so be sure to replace them with extra water.

4/ Gulping air

Everyone swallows air – it’s physically impossible not to! However, some people swallow more air than others.

The do’s

  • Eat slowly, chewing well between each mouthful.
  • Monitor how you eat, especially if you feel you gulp your food, and then try to change your habits.
  • Try to make mealtimes as relaxing as possible. Sit down and enjoy your food.

The don’ts

  • Avoid eating on the run or multi-tasking – talking on the phone, eating your lunch and gulping down your coffee all at the same time is not a good mix.
  • Avoid excessive consumption of carbonated drinks.
  • Don’t chew gum.
  • Try to avoid rushing your meals.

When to seek medical advice

There are remedies available to temporarily relieve the symptoms of gas build-up once it occurs. However, they are temporary and it’s important to uncover why the symptoms are happening in the first place. If you have regular bouts of bloating, make sure you consult a medical professional such as a GP or accredited practising dietitian.