Here’s What’s Actually Happening When You’re Bloated

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Nearly everyone has dealt with the dreaded "belly bloat." Even if you haven't, you've heard about it: There are entire books devoted to the topic, and countless other articles already out there about ways to "beat the bloat."
Bloating is a very common symptom that can, in some cases, reveal underlying health issues. But we tend to say we "feel bloated" when we simply mean "full." And, unfortunately, "I'm so bloated" has become a problematic code phrase in our society for "I'm feeling fat today" — as if that were a bad thing. Worse, a lot of the popular advice about bloating that exists takes advantage of these body anxieties and ignores the fact that bloating is what's supposed to happen.
Your stomach is designed to withstand changes. In addition to being squished and contorted as you move around and wear tight-fitting clothes, your stomach will naturally expand to accommodate your meals. "Your belly is going to get distended during the day normally," explains Felice Schnoll-Sussman, MD, a gastroenterologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital. "It happens to everyone...but some people are extra sensitive to that."
"Bloating is a very general term," she continues. But what doctors mean when they talk about bloating is often very different from what the rest of us mean.
First off, bloating isn't just feeling full. "Bloating is typically related to a sense of gassiness and abdominal discomfort," Dr. Schnoll-Sussman says. "Some people also see abdominal distension, but others don't."
Sometimes the cause can be traced back to an imbalance of bacteria. If you've taken a course of antibiotics recently, for instance, the bacteria responsible for breaking down some types of complex carbohydrates may be out of whack. So you may feel a bit bloated after eating foods that contain those carbs, such as beans and lentils, because these bacteria produce gas as part of the natural digestion process. But the two main causes of bloating are swallowing too much air (which ends up in your intestines) and eating large meals too quickly (which backs everything up).
Constipation also tends to go hand-in-hand with bloating. "Our GI tract is basically plumbing," explains Dr. Schnoll-Sussman. "There's a top and a bottom. And what goes in must, at some point, come out." So, if you're constipated, she says, there may be a buildup of gas and fluid behind the (ahem) blockage that's making you feel bloated on top of not being able to poop.
The key to dealing with bloating is first knowing what's normal for you, as there are a few cases in which bloating can be a sign of something more serious. "The most important thing is getting a sense of whether or not this is something new," says Dr. Schnoll-Sussman. If you've had GI issues your whole life, that might just be a characteristic of your individual system. But if you're noticing a recent change in the way your tummy feels — especially if you haven't changed anything about your diet — that could be a red flag.
In the most serious scenarios, persistent bloating can be a result of a (possibly cancerous) growth in the GI tract that's blocking things up. Bloating is also one of very few early warning signs for ovarian cancer. (Ovarian cancer is rare, but any weird bloating can and should be investigated.) Remember, though, these aren't cases where you're feeling a little extra full and then all better the next day; here, you'll most likely feel bloated, for no apparent reason, every day for weeks.
However, in the vast majority of cases, feeling bloated is a temporary annoyance and nothing to worry about in the long term. In fact, Dr. Schnoll-Sussman says that up to 10% of Americans report dealing with bloating on a regular basis.
Still, there's no reason to be uncomfortable, and there are a few common habits that can make your bloating, and therefore your discomfort, worse. So, to that end, we collected a few tips for dealing with this gassy fact of life (minus the usual misinformation and diet tips masquerading as health advice). Click through to see a few ways to feel better if your bloat is bothering you — and strategies to prevent it in the first place.

More from Body

R29 Original Series