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What is bloating, and how can we tackle it?

It’s one of the most common gut health symptoms, but what actually is bloating?

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April 28, 2023
6 min read

Bloating is one of the most common, and most recognisable symptoms of gut health. It’s something that everyone has experienced, but the severity, frequency, and overall impact can vary greatly between different people.

In this article, we’ll look at the science behind bloating to better understand what it actually is. And once we have a good idea about that, we’ll find some of the best ways to relieve bloating in the short term, and reduce the risk of bloating long term. 

Article breakdown

What is bloating

Put simply, bloating is the feeling of an overly full, uncomfortable gut. But while it might sound simple, the effects can be serious.

Bloating can be debilitating, both physically and emotionally. It can cause distress, destroy our self-confidence, and prevent us from feeling comfortable in our own bodies. That’s horrible for anyone, and it’s one of the reasons we want to get to the bottom of things, and find out what exactly is going on.

The science of bloating

Without understanding the science, we won’t understand how to tackle bloating, so that’s the first place to start. Bloating isn’t in itself a condition—rather, it’s a symptom, so there are several potential causes. 

Bloating is most commonly caused by a buildup of gas in the gut. This may be from something that you eat or drink (such as fizzy drinks), or it might be gas produced by the bacteria in your microbiome. And as the excess gas gathers in the digestive tract, it can start to cause the uncomfortable feeling we know as bloating. 

There’s no consensus on a specific amount of gas that would be considered “too much”. It varies from person to person, and as bloating is a sensory symptom (it’s defined by feeling its presence), determining a specific amount of gas wouldn’t be particularly helpful. Certain conditions or traits, even something as simple as bad posture, can also impact our ability to remove gas from our guts, so for someone with an impaired ability to evacuate gas, a smaller amount would be necessary to still feel bloated.

There are also several other causes of bloating. For example, constipation can lead to a build up of stool in the large intestine, blocking the digestive tract and leading to feelings of bloating. Menstruation is also linked to bloating, so you may be more susceptible around your period.

Finally, bloating can be a sign of more serious medical conditions. So if you’ve been feeling regularly bloated for a long period of time, or if you’re concerned about your health, it’s important to go and see a healthcare professional.

Bloating & distension

Bloating and distension are often confused. They’re closely related, but not technically the same thing. Bloating is defined as the sensation of being overly full—this might be the result of excess gas, or a blockage in the digestive tract, but it can also be exacerbated by psychological factors, and dysfunction of the gut-brain axis

Distension, however, is the physical swelling of the abdomen that often accompanies feelings of bloating. While the two symptoms often go together, they aren’t always caused by the same thing, so it’s important to be aware of the difference between the two. Distension might be the result of a buildup of gas, or constipation, but it can also be caused by fluid buildup, inflammation, or other physical or medical phenomena. Much like with bloating, if distension continues over a long period of time, or if it starts to feel like it’s getting more severe, talk to a healthcare professional about whether there might be a reason behind it.

How to tackle bloating

By understanding more about what causes bloating, we can find techniques that will help relieve it, both in the short term and the long term.

4 ways to relieve bloating instantly

  • Take a warm bath. The heat of the water can help soothe the muscles in your abdomen and reduce stress levels, helping your digestive tract to move air along more efficiently.

  • Massage your abdomen. Gently massage from right to left to help release trapped gas and move it along the intestines.

  • Try some yoga. Specific poses, such as the Happy Baby Pose and the Child’s Pose can help position the abdominal muscles in a way that encourages evacuation of gas from the bowels.

  • Go for a walk. Physical movement encourages regularity in the bowels, which can help release trapped gas.

5 ways to reduce bloating long term

  • Cut down on fizzy drinks and chewing gum. Fizzy drinks are self-explanatory (the bubbles have to go somewhere) but chewing gum encourages us to swallow air, which can lead to more bloating.

  • Gradually increase fibre in your diet. Fibre is essential for good gut health, but most of us don’t get enough, which can lead to constipation and bloating. However it’s important not to make drastic changes to your diet, as sudden increases in fibre can actually cause more digestive discomfort, so aim to increase your fibre levels gradually. 

  • Schedule regular exercise. Much like a walk can help with bloating straight away, regular exercise over a long period of time can help reduce bloating over the long term, through better abdominal muscle function and increased bowel regularity.

  • Try a probiotic supplement. The beneficial bacteria in your microbiome can help regulate bowel movement and buildup of gas in the colon, so a high-quality probiotic that’s been shown to work may be able to help tackle bloating. 

  • Eat smaller, but more regular meals. Lots of people find that large meals and irregular dining schedules can contribute to bloating, so aim to eat little and often to promote regularity.

Some of these techniques will work better for some people, others will work better for others. The key is to try them out, and see what works best for you, so you can build your own personal strategy for dealing with bloating. Because we all deserve to feel good in ourselves, and to not have to spend our time worrying about our gut function, and how it makes us feel.

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