Many of us have woken in the morning to find we’ve gained 8 pounds — in our tummies. It isn’t uncommon for women to feel and look bloated at various times in their lives, but it can seem to come out of the blue. The causes aren’t always known, which means we have a tougher time preventing it from happening. Before we dive into the most common culprits behind bloating, it’s important to understand what, exactly, we mean when we complain about it to our friends.
“Feeling bloated is a symptom experienced at some time by a vast majority of people and is not limited to one gender,” says Dr. David Diaz, reproductive endocrinologist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “A symptom of bloating is a subjective feeling or sensation of abdominal pressure or fullness experienced by a person that can represent a variety of conditions from the most mundane such as food indiscretion leading to gas formation in the bowels to a more ominous condition such as inflammation of organs, fluid buildup or even tumors.”
Here are six reasons you might feel bloated.
1. Hormonal changes that take place throughout the month
The abdominal area, where bloating is felt, contains major organs such as the stomach, intestines, adrenals, gallbladder, liver, kidneys and bladder, which, of course, exist in both women and men. But, as Diaz reminds us, women possess additional reproductive organs, such as the uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes, that can undergo cyclic changes perceived as lower abdominal discomfort. “In women, there are also cyclic events associated with fluctuating levels of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone that can assert fluid retention throughout the body, giving rise to menstrual bloat,” Diaz says. “Pre-existing hormonal alterations and imbalances will invariably lead to disturbances associated with discomfort and menstrual irregularities.”
2. Diet and lifestyle behaviors
If you’re experiencing bloating that is unrelated to your menstrual cycle, or if it hasn’t improved once your period comes and goes, it’s time to take a good, hard look at the foods you’re eating.
“Dietary rituals, including many B and C vegetables such as beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower, are classic causes of gas and bloating,” says Dr. Sherry Ross, OB-GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Other dietary culprits include rich and fatty foods; whole grains; apples, peaches and pears; lettuce; onions; and sugar-free foods containing sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol and are directly associated with this frustrating symptom.”
Lactose intolerance commonly affects women and is a frequent cause of bloating, Ross says, as are other lifestyle behaviors that include drinking carbonated beverages, overeating, eating too fast, lack of exercise and drinking alcohol.
3. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBS is defined as “recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort that occurs in association with altered bowel habits over a period of at least three months,” Ross says. If you suffer from IBS, your bowel habits can be altered in one of three ways: constipation, diarrhea, or both constipation and diarrhea. “Bloating is another painful symptom associated with IBS sufferers,” Ross says. “Constipation without an IBS diagnosis also contributes to agonizing bloating.”
4. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
This small bowel bacterial overgrowth and diverticulitis are other intestinal abnormalities that cause bloating, Ross says.
5. Certain medications
Bloating is a common side effect of several medications that help with the treatment of IBS and constipation, Ross says. Examples of these medications and supplements include fiber supplements, psyllium, 100 percent bran, Metamucil, Citrucel and MiraLAX and stimulant laxatives, such as Ex-Lax and Senokot, which Ross says are the hardest on your intestines, creating painful bloating and intestinal upheaval. “Air swallowers and gum chewers also suffer from abdominal bloating,” she says.
More: Why you can blame hormones for the dreaded belly bloat
6. Serious medical conditions
Some serious medical conditions that Ross says cause bloating include ovarian cancer, celiac disease, dumping syndrome, pancreatitis, ascites and other intestinal tumors.