Belly Bloat - What the Heck Is It?
Contrary to unbaked internet theories of gluten intolerance, "inflammation," and a nebulous "toxic lifestyle," most cases of belly bloat can be attributed to a few simple things. These causes are perfectly normal, even if they are perfectly annoying.
I have always been a bloater.
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Even though my abdominal wall is as hard as a rock when I flex, my stomach still ends up with that "late first-trimester” look by the end of the day. Since I was also in the process of being tested for an egg allergy, I did some research and then sat down with my Doctor to talk about what my bloating could mean.
What's Up With Belly Bloat?
Chances are, it's farts
It's not glamorous, but the very first thing to consider is intestinal gas. In fact, most all cases of abdominal bloat are due to a buildup of gas from constipation, or the digestion of specific foods, or consuming a sudden glut of fiber and the subsequent inability to move it through your GI tract.
How does gas build up?
About half of it is from swallowing air. The air may get trapped in your intestines in between turds going nowhere slow, like a merge lane in rush hour. Constipation is a major culprit in this scenario.
Women tend to be more constipated because we neglect taking care of ourselves to take care of everyone else in the house - we aren't hydrated enough and often eat on the fly. We are also more stressed out about day to day details that just don't seem to affect our male counterparts as much. They're in the bathroom three times a day, with no bother.
And if you're a mom, the moment you are finally able to sit on the toilet and relax your sphincter, something crashes in the next room and all your kids start screaming. Generally speaking, we are all "bound up" to varying degrees.
Fiber is another cause. It is vital to maintaining a healthy bowel, but it doesn't break down so much as it ferments, which creates gas. If fiber is moving through your bowel regularly, this buildup is minimal. If not, well, it's elastic-waisted pants for you.
You may also have heard of FODMAPs if you've ever complained to your doctor about digestive distress. FODMAPs (aka, Fermentable Oligo-Di-Monosaccharides and Polyols) are sugars in some foods that can be hard to digest. They draw water into the intestinal tract and sometimes cause bloating, diarrhea, constipation or cramps in people who are sensitive to them or eat them in excess.
Occasionally, it could be lady hormones
Bloating in predictable intervals around your menstrual cycle is very common. Not only do we retain some water, but hormones can actually affect digestion, making your system sluggish and retentive.
Coupled with constipation (you can be constipated even if you don't "feel" constipated, by the way), and the desire to eat comfort foods which are usually high in salt, fat, and carbohydrates - it's a perfect storm for buildup.
Bloating is a very common and natural response to digestion. Unfortunately, it goes against our obsession with the "flat stomach" aesthetic. It doesn't necessarily mean anything is wrong - we just hate the way it looks.
So, what do we do about it? Can we reduce the bloating and put our skinny jeans back on? Good news, the answer is mostly yes. Obviously, you won't lose belly fat, which is a completely unrelated issue, but there are things you can do to keep the pooch to a minimum:
Eat slower. Don't use straws. Ease back on carbonated drinks. Keep a diet journal and find out if specific foods are hard for your body to digest, then eliminate or cut back.
Eat smaller meals, more often. If you are trying to add more fiber into your diet via raw vegetables, beans and whole grains, go slow! Ease into a high fiber diet, or it can be overwhelming.
That said, gas will happen. If for nothing else than you have to open your mouth to eat. Definitely keep plenty of fiber in your diet, but drink a lot of water to push it all through your system. Hydration is the key to making fiber work for you instead of against you.
Exercise every day. Drink a cup of coffee. Add yogurt into your diet. De-stress and start taking care of yourself! I know, it's not a shake, a 10-minute ab blast, or a pill, but these are the fundamental changes you have to make to really see a difference.
When you feel something is wrong
If your bloating is accompanied by cramps, diarrhea, sudden changes in stool, or nausea, you might have a food allergy, intolerance or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. See your doctor to get to the bottom of it.
If you feel a fullness in your lower abdomen that doesn't wax and wane, but gets persistently worse over time, or is accompanied by changes in menstruation and nausea, this might signal ovarian or uterine issues like fibroids, cysts or some cancers. Again, see your doctor if the distension doesn't go up and down or becomes more uncomfortable over time.
If there are simply no solid answers, you can try the Low FODMAP Diet to figure out your trigger foods. It is very tedious, as you have to be strict for six weeks and then slowly introduce foods/food groups one at a time to figure it out. But the good news is, afterwards, you should know a lot more about your body!
Just remember, some bloating is normal, especially for us women. Even though Instagram is full of chiseled abs and itty-bitty waists, that isn't reality. Digestion happens, and it has no concern for your vanity. If you feel good, don't sweat it - if you feel nasty, or bogged-down, make some real changes to your diet and lifestyle.
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