What Causes Bloating—Plus, 7 Ways to Feel Better

Find out why you feel bloated, steps you can take to ease the pain, and when your symptoms might indicate a serious problem.

bloated young woman

You know the feeling: That tight, full, discomfort in your abdomen that begs you to loosen your belt a couple of notches or change into a comfy pair of stretchy sweatpants. And it's not because you ate too much. Your distended belly is the result of something amiss in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

What causes abdominal bloating? If you guessed gas, that's a good guess. Everyone passes gas—anywhere between 10 to 25 times a day is considered normal. But excess gas can definitely make you feel uncomfortably full, and it’s the reason some people bloat. 

Gas develops from:

  • Air swallowed while eating, drinking (especially carbonated beverages), chewing gum, smoking, sucking on hard candy, or wearing ill-fitting dental appliances (dentures, retainers, etc.).
  • Undigested food passing into the large intestine, where friendly bacteria break it down, releasing gas in the process. Top gas producers include undigested carbohydrates, soluble fiber, artificial sweeteners, and certain sugars found in fruit, vegetables, legumes, and dairy products.

Now, here's the catch: Many people think gas and bloating are one and the same, so when people are bloated, they're likely to attribute their symptoms to excess gas. But excess gas is not always the culprit. It's possible to feel bloated even when producing a normal amount of gas. 

So, what's going on down there?

What's behind your bloating

The truth is, that in addition to excess gas, there are a number of possible causes of bloating. One of the most common is a group of conditions known as functional gastrointestinal disorders. Up to 96 percent of people with these disorders experience bloating. They alter the way the GI tract works, but many of them have no known cause.

If you have uncomfortable GI symptoms, a healthcare provider (HCP) may perform lab tests to rule out illnesses such as Crohn's disease or cancer. But if the results come back normal, it's possible that a functional GI disorder is causing your symptoms. And there may not be an obvious reason for those symptoms.

For example, someone with chronic bloating may not have an excessive amount of gas in the intestine—but he or she still feels uncomfortable. It doesn't mean that the bloating isn't real; it just means that nothing out of the ordinary can be found with medical testing.

Clinicians speculate that some people with functional GI disorders may simply be unusually sensitive to pain and normal amounts of gas in the gut. Or it could be that the muscle contractions along their GI tracts are not coordinated, which can cause unpleasant symptoms. Or there could be some other yet-to-be-defined reason for their discomfort. Research has also suggested that abnormal levels of serotonin—a chemical neurotransmitter that is present mainly in the digestive tract—play a role in certain functional GI disorders.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common functional GI disorders, affecting as many as one in seven Americans. The condition causes abdominal bloating, pain, and discomfort. People with IBS also experience constipation, diarrhea, or alternating periods of both.

Other examples of functional GI disorders include dyspepsia, chronic constipation, chronic diarrhea, and chronic bloating.

How to ease bloating

If you have abdominal bloating that is not the result of a medical condition, modifying your diet is a good first step. Change not only what you eat but also how you eat. Follow these tips:

  • Eat small meals frequently throughout the day.
  • Chew food thoroughly to aid digestion.
  • Sit up straight while eating.
  • Avoid drinking carbonated beverages.
  • Avoid high-fat meals; they slow digestion. Food lingers longer in the colon, and intestinal bacteria produce more gas.
  • Exercise every day to help maintain healthy bowel function.
  • Reduce gas-provoking foods in your diet.

Fruit, vegetables, dairy products and whole grains are part of a healthy eating pattern. so talk to an HCP if you have trouble tolerating them. A provider can recommend a nutritionally balanced diet that suits your needs.

You may be able to ward off the effects of gas-forming foods by taking enzymes before you eat. For example, if you're lactose intolerant, lactase tablets may help you digest dairy products better. And alpha-galactosidase (Beano) tablets can help reduce gas caused by eating legumes, whole grains, and vegetables.

Several herbs are well-known digestion aids, as well. Try brewing up a cup of peppermint,  chamomile, or fennel tea to help ease bloating. Some people find relief in over-the-counter medications containing bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) or simethicone (e.g., Alka-Seltzer, Mylanta, Maalox, Gas-X, etc.). If your bloating is chronic or severe, your HCP may prescribe you something to relieve your symptoms.

When to see a healthcare provider

Usually, occasional bloating isn't a problem. But if dietary modifications or home remedies don't alleviate your symptoms and your bloating is bothersome, ongoing, or accompanied by other worrisome symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, bleeding, fever, weight loss, etc.), you should be evaluated by a clinician. Again, the root cause of chronic bloating can be a medical condition, such as IBS, chronic constipation, or something more serious, like a bowel obstruction, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or cancer.

Article sources open article sources

MedlinePlus. Abdominal Bloating. April 6, 2020. Accessed June 6, 2022.
Cleveland Clinic. Bloated Stomach. September 10, 2021. Accessed June 6, 2022.
Cleveland Clinic. Gas and Gas Pain. September 11, 2020. Accessed June 6, 2022.
FamilyDoctor.org. Bloating. July 2021. Accessed June 6, 2022.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Chamomile. May 2020. Accessed June 6, 2022.
Manocha M & Khan WI. Serotonin and GI Disorders: An Update on Clinical and Experimental Studies. Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology. April 2012. 3(4), e13.
American College of Gastroenterology. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. 2022. Accessed June 6, 2022.

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