Bloated stomach: what causes bloating?

A bloated stomach or bloated feeling is a common symptom that affects approximately 10-30% of people. It is often difficult to describe what exactly you are suffering from. Some people feel like their abdomen is swelling, and loosening the top buttons on their pants provides relief. Still others have a more bloated feeling, without the abdomen visibly swelling.

Causes of a bloated stomach

  • Bloated stomach
  • What factors and medical conditions can cause bloating?
  • Common innocent factors
  • Underlying medical conditions
  • Consult your GP
  • What can be done about a bloated stomach or bloating?
  • Examination and diagnosis
  • Reduce abdominal bloating through lifestyle changes

 

Bloated abdomen and abdominal pain / Source: Andrey Popov/Shutterstock.com

Bloated stomach

Excessive wind (flatulence), frequent belching and gurgling in the intestines (borborygmi) are related complaints to bloating in some people. Bloating is much more common in people with functional gastrointestinal disorders. According to some research, approximately 96% of patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) experience bloating at some point, and 60% of them report it as their most bothersome symptom. In comparison, only 29% experience abdominal pain as the most bothersome symptom. Bloating can significantly interfere with your daily activities such as work, housework and recreational activities. Bloating can also cause more absenteeism, visits to the doctor and medication use.

What factors and medical conditions can cause bloating?

Common innocent factors

In the vast majority of people with a bloated stomach or bloating, one of the following (relatively) harmless factors plays a role:

  • Aerophagia or swallowing air. This often happens unconsciously, for example with nervousness and anxiety, or by drinking through a straw, smoking and chewing gum;
  • Eating too much, too fast, too often and/or too fatty food;
  • By eating gas-forming foods;
  • By drinking carbonated drinks;
  • Difficult bowel movements (constipation);
  • Excessive use of alcohol.

 

Underlying medical conditions

Medical conditions that may underlie bloating include:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome;
  • Gastrointestinal motility (problems of the gastrointestinal tract functioning too slowly or too quickly);
  • Visceral hypersensitivity (hypersensitivity of the intestine to mechanical stimuli);
  • Lactose intolerance (lactose is present in dairy products);
  • Fructose intolerance (fructose is present in table sugar and fruit sugar);
  • Food allergy;
  • Dumping syndrome (too rapid emptying of the stomach and almost always the result of an operation in which (part of) the stomach has been removed);
  • Period;
  • Helicobacter pylori (a bacterium in the stomach);

Helicobacter pylori / Source: Yutaka Tsutsumi, Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

  • Giardiasis (intestinal parasitic infection);
  • Bacterial overgrowth;
  • Celiac disease (an autoimmune disease);
  • Bowel obstruction;
  • Liver cirrhosis (can cause bloating due to fluid retention in the abdomen, as well as some other conditions mentioned below);
  • Heart failure;
  • Gallstones;
  • Stomach ulcer;
  • Inflammation of the stomach lining;
  • Uterine cancer;
  • Ovarian cancer;
  • Pancreatic cancer;
  • Crohn’s disease;
  • Colon cancer;
  • Stomach cancer;

General practitioner / Source: Istock.com/Wavebreakmedia

  • Gallbladder cancer;
  • Potassium deficiency;
  • Chagas disease (parasitic disease).

 

Consult your GP

If you regularly suffer from bloating, despite lifestyle changes (not eating too quickly, not chewing gum too often, etc.), or if it is accompanied by other symptoms, it is wise to consult your doctor.

What can be done about a bloated stomach or bloating?

Examination and diagnosis

First of all, it is important that the underlying cause is determined, but that is not always easy. The GP will take a history and ask about the severity of the complaints, when the complaints occur, whether you also suffer from other complaints, etc. The GP will also perform a physical examination. Usually other associated symptoms give the doctor an indication of what is going on and why you are experiencing bloating, such as an infection with the parasite Giardia lamblia, which can easily be treated with antibiotics. If a food allergy is suspected, the doctor can order a test, such as the skin prick test. Drops containing certain allergens are placed on the skin. The drop then punctures the skin. After 15-20 minutes, the skin can be examined for any reactions. An elimination-provocation test is also possible. This involves removing ‘suspicious’ foods (foods that you think are causing your symptoms) from your diet for four to six weeks. When the symptoms disappear, you can add this food to your diet again. However, if the complaints return, you can assume that the complaints are caused by this food. Sometimes your GP will refer you to a specialist, for example if you suspect cancer.

Lifestyle changes reduce complaints / Source: Istock.com/Visivasnc

Reduce abdominal bloating through lifestyle changes

Bloating can often be effectively reduced through lifestyle adjustments. If you suffer from bloating, it may help you to adhere to the following advice:

  • Avoid high-fat meals;
  • Be careful with carbonated drinks and foods that cause extra gas formation;
  • Eat slowly, chew well and don’t talk too much while eating;
  • Preferably eat small meals spread throughout the day;
  • Take sufficient exercise, because that is good for intestinal movement;
  • Do not use chewing gum;
  • Quit smoking.

 

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