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If you've ever struggled to zip jeans that went on fine just a few days earlier, lived through an uncomfortable episode of gas, or simply felt as if your belly was fuller than it should have been, you know about the battle of the bloat. Bloating is usually caused by either a buildup of gas or fluid retention, both of which can make your stomach feel heavy and distended. Because neither the triggers nor the symptoms are the same for everyone, you need to figure out what's causing your bloating to get relief.
If your digestive tract seems to take longer than normal to process food, you may feel uncomfortable long after a meal should be out of your system. A good indicator that your transit time is on the slow side? You have a bowel movement less than three times a week.
How to Beat It
A high-fiber diet -- 25 grams per day if you're under 50; 21 grams after that -- can help move food through your body faster. One caution: Raise your fiber intake too quickly and you can actually worsen bloating because many high-fiber foods produce gas. "Increase fiber by three to five grams per week until you reach the recommended amount so your body can adjust," advises Leslie Bonci, RD, director of sports medicine nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. That's equal to one apple, a half cup of baked beans, or a cup of oatmeal.
Eating foods with certain probiotics -- good bacteria naturally found in the digestive tract -- can also jumpstart your digestive system. Lactobacillus acidophilus, for example, helps the body break down food, speeding transit time. An eight-ounce serving of yogurt with live cultures (check the container) has enough acidophilus to give you the benefits. Or take an acidophilus supplement that contains about 1 to 10 billion live cultures.
The fiber-rich foods you're already eating -- for example, beans, broccoli, cabbage, pears, and whole wheat bread -- can make you gassy. The body breaks down the complex sugars in these foods with gas-producing bacteria in the large intestine. (Protein-rich fare like chicken and eggs is fully digested by enzymes before it reaches the large intestine.) Also to blame? Fried and fatty dishes. These typically take longer to digest, creating extra gas.
How to Beat It
Foods that produce gas in one person may not have the same effect on someone else. Think about what you ate in the last few hours. If you suspect fried foods, try avoiding them for a few days to see if you feel better. (Gassiness and intolerance to fatty foods are signs of gall bladder disease, though; check with your doctor if that's your problem.)
Obviously, vegetables are too important to stop eating altogether. Instead, cut back on those that tend to make you gassy for about three days, then gradually increase your intake -- or stick to those that don't pose a problem for you, recommends Michael Levitt, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. And consider using Beano drops or tablets right before eating problematic vegetables. If these steps don't prevent gas completely, try an over-the-counter antigas medication with simethicone, such as Gas-X. This will help break up gas and reduce bloating.
Chewing gum, drinking through a straw, talking while eating, and smoking can cause you to swallow air, says Janet Harrison, MD, assistant professor of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Carbonated beverages exacerbate the problem: The bubbles release carbon dioxide into your digestive tract.
How to Beat It
We don't need to tell you that you should stop smoking for myriad health reasons more serious than bloating. Cut back on gum chewing, and eat and drink more slowly to help reduce your excess air intake.
The hormone progesterone surges prior to your period, causing both water retention and slower digestion.
How to Beat It
"A few days before your period, avoid foods high in salt and limit alcohol consumption to reduce water retention," says Steven R. Goldstein, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the New York University School of Medicine. Use diuretics, also called water pills, cautiously. Although they help rid your body of sodium and water, long-term use can cause electrolyte abnormalities, diabetes, high calcium levels in your blood, or kidney damage. Improve digestion by eating more high-fiber foods. Exercise can also help stimulate the digestive system. If these changes don't give you enough relief, ask your gynecologist about taking low-dose birth-control pills to ease the progesterone spike.
One of the best ways to determine the source of your bloating is to keep a food diary, says Lin Chang, MD, codirector of UCLA's Center for Neurobiology of Stress. "For four to five weeks, write down what you eat at each meal and when you feel bloated," she says. Include any information that could be associated with bloating, such as the timing of your menstrual cycle if you're premenopausal. You may discover that you feel bloated a few days a month around your period, which would tell you that hormones are the problem. But if the feeling is worse after popcorn night at the movies, food may be your trigger.
If self-help solutions don't work, see your doctor -- and bring your diary with you, says Dr. Chang. "Bloating can be hard to diagnose, but knowing a patient's habits is very helpful."
If your bloating occurs more than once a week for a period longer than two weeks and is accompanied by other symptoms, such as abdominal pain, a change in bowel habits, or nausea, it may be sign of a more serious health problem. Get yourself checked for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, parasites, lactose intolerance, or bacterial overgrowth, says Mack Mitchell, MD, director of gastroenterology and digestive diseases at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
Although much rarer, bloating can also be a red flag for ovarian cancer. The other signs? Pelvic pain, feeling full quickly, and an urgent need to urinate. See your gynecologist immediately if you have any combination of these symptoms on 12 or more days a month. Catching it quickly is crucial.
What do you do to feel skinny? Leave us a comment and tell us your tricks!
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2009.