A bloated belly is more than uncomfortable. It makes your stomach not only feel swollen but also look bigger, and it can contribute to further digestive issues. Causes include excessive gas production, overeating (or eating too much of the wrong thing!), hormonal fluctuations, or stress. There’s no quick fix to bloating. But exercise such as stretching, yoga, or cardio can help minimize symptoms and make you feel better faster. Here’s what our experts suggest to reduce bloating.
Hormone changes, dietary choices, and stress can cause bloating.
“Bloating can occur for a number of common reasons,” says Dr. Sherry Ross, a practicing OB-GYN in Santa Monica, Calif. “Dietary rituals including many B and C vegetables are classic causes of gas and bloating … [such as] beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower.” According to Ross, other dietary culprits include:
- rich and fatty foods
- whole grains
- fruits like apples, peaches, pears
- sugar-free foods containing sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol
- lactose intolerance
- carbonated beverages
- overeating or eating too fast
- lack of exercise
- drinking alcohol
According to Dr. Susan Besser, a primary care provider specializing in family medicine at Mercy Personal Physicians in Baltimore, Maryland, bloating is due to the digestive process. As food gets digested, gas forms as a chemical reaction. Eating a large volume of food at one time or swallowing air while eating can lead to bloating and a distended stomach. Intolerance to specific foods can be a culprit as well, adds Aaptiv trainer Kelly Chase, This usually isn’t detected unless you go through a process of elimination to see what triggers it.
Stress may be a contributing factor, too, says NYC-based personal trainer and clinical nutritionist Ariane Hundt. “High stress levels reduce stomach acid, and that reduces the ability to digest foods properly, leaving you with undigested food particles that can irritate your small intestines and then in the large intestines cause gas and bloating,” she explains.
For women specifically, Dr. Ross says bloating is quite common around the time of your period. “Most women experience mild bloating a week or two before a period that is caused by normal cyclic hormonal changes,” she says.
Regular exercise does help reduce bloating, but there’s no special stretch for elimination.
Some researchers say exercise helps reduce symptoms of bloating primarily because physical activity supports the passage of gas through one’s digestive system. Still, working out won’t necessarily address the root cause, Hundt says. Dr. Ross agrees with the sentiment that you can’t “stretch your bloating away.” Focus on regular exercise four to six times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes to help keep bloating at bay.
However, stretching can have a calming effect. This may aid how you feel during a bloated episode. For example, Chase personally finds that certain yoga poses such as happy baby and child’s pose can reduce discomfort and pain associated with gas or bloating, but that will vary per individual.
“Some stretches can absolutely help,” says Aaptiv trainer Candice Cunningham. “One thing that can cause you to look bloated is having tight hips, namely hip flexors and psoas. When these are tight, it lengthens hamstrings and weakens lower-back and glute muscles. When added up, these issues can cause your pelvis to tilt forward (known as ‘anterior tilt’) and your stomach to ‘hang,’ so to speak. By stretching your hips and activating your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, you can help pull your pelvis back in line.”
Bloating usually isn’t serious but can indicate a bigger health issue.
“While the vast majority of us have experienced bloating without serious repercussion, it is important to keep in mind that it can also indicate a bigger health issue,” Dr. Ross advises. In her opinion, it can be related to irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, gastroesophageal reflux, celiac disease, ovarian cancer, pancreatitis, or other intestinal abnormalities, just to name a few. She also states that certain medications intended to treat IBS and constipation can contribute to bloating, such as Metamucil, Citrucel, and Miralax, plus laxatives like Ex-Lax and Senokot.
Of course, this doesn’t automatically mean you have a serious health problem if you experience bloating. But if unusual symptoms persist, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider.
A healthy diet, probiotics, hydration, and exercise can all help reduce and prevent bloating symptoms.
Hundt suggests cutting down on sugar, including that from fruit, to help with water retention. “Every gram of sugar makes you retain about 3g of water, so you’ll notice a flatter stomach, you’ll go to the bathroom to pee a lot more as your body releases excess bloat, and you’ll notice your face and bags under eyes disappear within two to three days,” she says.
You can also try cooking vegetables instead of consuming them raw. Cooking helps with digesting fiber and preventing constipation. Hundt says that because gluten can irritate some people’s digestive tract, you can experiment with skipping grains and starches from beans and legumes.
In terms of how probiotics assist with bloating, research is mixed. One study says probiotics do help with bloating. Another sees benefits only related to gas. Hundt advocates for use to balance bacteria in your large colon. “An overabundance of bad bacteria will create more gas and bloating, and probiotics will balance that imbalance and in turn reduce bloating and gas,” she says. “Aim for a probiotic that contains at least 25-50 billion active bacteria from at least three different strains.”
Dr. Besser advises, “Stay away from carbonated beverages. Eat smaller meals and chew thoroughly. If you find certain foods cause gas take simethicone (Gas-X) before a meal. Light stretching can help reduce bloating by physically rearranging things in your abdomen and helping food (and gas) move further down your digestive system.”
If nothing else, Chase concludes, stick to healthy eating and activities. Yoga, stretching, walking, or meditation can help with digestive health.