The Fastest Way to Relieve Bloating, According to Health Experts
Distension. Puffiness. Bloating. A food baby. Whatever you want to call it, up to one in three Americans experiences this uncomfortable sensation, research proves. That's a lot of collective discomfort.
Luckily, most cases of bloating are totally harmless, but it can be confusing to sort out what actually falls under the umbrella of "bloating."
"'Bloating' is a term that patients—and many physicians, too—use to describe different concepts. The sensation of bloating, by definition a symptom of a sense of 'gassiness,' is different from the observable 'physical sign' of abdominal distention, like one may feel 'pregnant.' Both can occur together, but bloating does not require distention to be present and often is experienced without visible distention," explains David Levinthal, M.D., a gastroenterologist at UPMC in Pittsburgh.
The gas that makes us feel a bit like we're bloated is actually made in a process similar to the way bread rises, adds Ashley Reaver, RD, an Oakland, California-based registered dietitian and the creator of the Lower Cholesterol Longer Life Method.
"CO2, carbon dioxide, is produced by the bacteria in our digestive tract. The bacteria utilize indigestible carbohydrates as a food source, and in the process, they release gas as a byproduct. We can experience this as flatulence and it can feel like bloating," she says. "The process is very similar to creating bread, because the yeast utilizes carbohydrates to release gas, making our bread rise."
Ahead, we'll focus on how to trim down on both bloating and the gas that might make you feel that way.
Related: 20 Recipes for When You Feel Bloated
Why You Might Feel Bloated
Bloated feelings can manifest from a variety of triggers, Dr. Levinthal says. A build-up of foods, fluids or intestinal gases can cause a stretched stomach, small intestines or colon walls.
"Any normal person could experience a bloating sensation if enough stretch were induced in the bowels; think of a balloon being inflated with gas and nearing its full volume. However, for many people that frequently experience gastrointestinal distress, the problem really is that the nerves that sense stretch are hypersensitive, and even physiological ranges of stretch—imagine a small balloon with plenty of room—can still be experienced as abnormal and cause symptoms of bloating," he says.
This is particularly common among anyone who has GI-related disorders, such as functional dyspepsia (indigestion with no obvious cause) or irritable bowel syndrome. A condition called "visceral nerve hypersensitivity" is a major contributor to these chronic conditions because the nerves are nearly constantly signaling that there is abnormal bowel stretch, even if there isn't such degrees of stretch in absolute terms. As a result, patients feel bloated nearly all the time, and feel particularly worse after eating, which naturally induces a lot of 'gut action' no matter what is on the menu.
"That gut action is felt by hypersensitive nerve endings in the gut. Several studies have demonstrated that the gas volumes in the bowels in most patients with significant bloating is actually 'normal'. It is the nerves that sense stretch that are the issue; it's a purely 'sensory nerve' problem," Dr. Levinthal says.
That said, some individuals do actually produce more intestinal gas than normal. Those who struggle to digest simple sugars (say, someone who is lactose intolerant) or the more complex sugar-like molecules in vegetables, cabbage and beans.
"Another reason that someone may produce more intestinal gas than normal is that there is an abnormal amount of small intestinal bacteria present, also known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)," Dr. Levinthal adds. "Patients with SIBO may experience bloating soon after consuming a meal with mostly sugar content, as the bacteria will begin to ferment those sugars quickly and produce gas."
Lastly, our abdominal cavity shape can actually vary quite a bit due to the diaphragm (which moves when we breathe), our abdominal wall muscles (which can get stronger or weaker) and our spinal position (or posture). The location of our organs in relation to those three anatomical features can "effectively create a 'distended' appearance without necessarily having more gas," he explains. See more sneaky causes of belly bloat.
The Fastest Ways to Relieve Bloating, No Prescription Required
Since it's "difficult to relieve the symptoms of bloating once they already exist," according to Reaver, the best prescription of all is prevention. It's also the fastest way to "relieve" bloating, no doubt—by avoiding it all together.
"The bloating usually occurs hours after a meal once food has progressed deep into the digestive tract, so any remedy taken once bloating is experienced will also take hours to reach the same location. Instead, focusing on what you can do before consuming foods is ideal," she says.
Here are 10 potential solutions to both prevent and relieve bloating, recommended by Reaver and Dr. Levinthal. Most of the bloating "cures" can make an impact within minutes to hours.
- Cook vegetables by roasting, steaming, sautéing or otherwise rather than eating raw vegetables.
- Soak and fully cook beans before adding them to your favorite bean recipes.
- Chew food slowly and thoroughly.
- Try not to talk while chewing and swallowing to prevent excess air from entering the digestive tract.
- Incorporate high-fiber foods in small amounts at first, spaced out throughout the day, so the body can get used to digesting them.
- Keep a food journal to track symptoms and identify any potential foods that trigger bloating.
- Drink 8 ounces of steaming water or tea first thing in the morning to gently wake up the digestive tract and start the process of peristalsis, the muscle contractions that move food down through the digestive tract. Then drink plenty of water throughout the day. (Psst...here's the #1 item that inspires Drew Barrymore to drink more water.)
- Eat at a regular frequency, as stretching the period of time between meals can increase the likelihood of bloating.
- For those with bloating related to sugar digestion challenges, enzyme replacements like Lactaid (buy it: $7.79 for 32, Target) or Beano (buy it: $12 for 150, Target) can be beneficial.
- Over the counter products with simethicone as the active ingredient, such as Gas-X (buy it: $4.29 for 18, Target), can assist in 'breaking up' gas pockets into small gas bubbles.
The Bottom Line
These lifestyle habits and dietary adjustments should help you bounce back to bloat-free status within minutes or hours. If you experience bloated feelings that impact your quality of life often, speak to your doctor. But also remember that most occasional bloating is actually quite normal and can even be healthy, according to a dietitian.
No matter what, steer clear from one product often targeted to those who search for "how to fix bloating" online: "Flat tummy teas DO NOT work! They contain herbs that act as a laxative, but they will not remove bloat if caused by food intake," Reaver says. Instead, employ one or several of the tactics above to try to tame the tummy pain.