Abdominal pain and bloat may stem from a variety of factors. For many people, this uncomfortable and embarrassing problem may happen infrequently. However, if you find yourself experiencing digestive system discomfort regularly, it may be a sign of a more serious problem.
Let’s look at the 4 most common causes of bloat and what you can do to stop the discomfort:
#1) Lactose intolerance
Many individuals have difficulty digesting lactose, a unique type of sugar found in milk and dairy products. The enzyme lactase, created by cells in the lining of the small intestine, helps to break down lactose. However, many people don’t produce enough of the enzyme to break down the sugar.
If you are lactose intolerant, drinking milk or consuming dairy products can result in uncomfortable side effects. Your symptoms depend on the quantity of lactose you’ve consumed as well as the amount of lactase your body produces.
Symptoms usually exhibit 30 minutes to 2 hours after lactose consumption. They can include:
- gas and bloating
- abdominal pain
- cramping in the lower abdomen
- rumbling sounds in the lower abdomen
- diarrhea or foamy stool
It’s estimated that 65% of the human population has difficulty digesting lactose after infancy. Lactose intolerance is most commonly found in Asian Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans and Native Americans.
If you’re left feeling bloated after eating dairy and suspect you might be lactose intolerant, limit or avoid dairy intake. Fortunately, many common dairy products, such as cheese, yogurt, and ice cream, now conveniently come in plant-based varieties.
In the past, it was widely believed that dairy’s benefits outweighed any health concerns linked to its consumptions. But now, more and more research continues to question whether we need it. Abstaining from lactose and dairy may be better for your health as well as help to prevent disease.
#2) Gluten sensitivity
Gluten sensitivity is often mistaken for celiac disease. Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder induced by consuming gluten, causes damage to the small intestine. Gluten sensitivity is not a food allergy. However, it is a common sensitivity that has not yet been proven to damage your GI tract.
- bloat, gas or abdominal pain
- diarrhea or constipation
- brain fog
- joint pain
- numbness in the legs, arms or fingers
When you remove gluten from your diet, you may find that your symptoms go away. Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, oats and rye. Many brands have developed gluten-free varieties of your favorite bread, pasta and cereal.
Constipation is usually defined as uncomfortable or infrequent (fewer than 3 times a week) bowel movements. With over 2.5 million doctor visits attributed to constipation each year in the United States, it is clearly a common problem.
After you eat and begin to feel full, your food moves through your large intestine as it creates stool. Your muscles contract to push the stool further through your body and absorbs water.
However, if your contractions are slow, your body may absorb too much water. This leads to constipation. Our body needs certain resources to absorb nutrients and move food through the digestive process.
You may find yourself with constipation if you:
- don’t drink enough water
- don’t get enough fiber
- eat too many binding foods
- take medications that list constipation as a side effect (this includes opioids)
- don’t exercise enough
- have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- ignore the urge to go when you have to
Constipation causes the intestinal tract to fill. This results in pain and discomfort in your abdomen.
If you are suffering from constipation:
- add fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet
- increase your water intake
- try gentle exercise and consistently
- set up a regular meal schedule
If that doesn’t resolve the problem, consider over-the-counter fiber supplements and stool softeners.
#4) Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
Inflammation is linked to many chronic pain conditions. Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of the female reproductive system that causes inflammation in the ovaries, uterus or fallopian tubes. It most commonly results from complications caused by chlamydia and gonorrhea. However, it can result from other bacteria found in the vagina.
Common symptoms of PID include:
- longer, heavier or more painful periods
- pain in your belly
- fever or chills
- bad-smelling vaginal discharge
- pain during sex
If you notice any discomfort, talk to your doctor about taking a test for this common condition. PID affects more than 1 million women a year in the United States. As a preventative measure, also get checked for STDs. In some cases, you may not present any symptoms.
Antibiotics can easily treat PID. Untreated PID can lead to chronic pain and infertility.
Identifying the cause of abdominal pain and bloat
To narrow down which of these problems is at the root of your pain and discomfort, start by keeping a food journal. Log everything you eat throughout the day. Make a note of the severity of your pain or discomfort on a scale from one to 10. Make additional notes for any specific symptoms you might encounter such as indigestion, heartburn, bloating, gas, nausea or vomiting.
After a week of tracking your eating habits and symptoms, examine your journal for patterns. If you notice that your abdominal pain is at its worst after a breakfast heavy in bread and milk, you might be either gluten intolerant or lactose intolerant. Additionally, a diet lacking in fiber might be the cause of chronic constipation.
If you have abdominal pain in addition to a change in your period schedule, it may be the result of PID. Discuss your symptoms and your food journal with your primary care doctor so you can work together to find relief from pain after eating.
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The team at Pain Resource updated this post as of June 2019 with new information and resources.