Bloating or water retention?

Originally Published: March 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 19, 2014
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Alice,

Besides pre-menstrual hormonal changes, what causes bloating or water retention? Lately, I have experienced bloating in the stomach area, and I would like to know what I can do to prevent it or at least alleviate the discomfort and the occasional pain associated with it. I heard that a diet high in sodium may cause bloating.

Signed, Feeling Discomfort

Dear Feeling Discomfort,

Whether you're experiencing abdominal bloating, excess gas, or the burping blues, there are many possible causes of your discomfort. Water retention, or edema, is an accumulation or extra fluid that is commonly caused by a temporary imbalance in your electrolyte and fluid levels. In most cases, edema is a totally normal reaction to stress on the body and goes away on its own. More on water retention can be found in Water retention in the big city?.

Abdominal bloating occurs when the abdomen feels full and tight, due to the build-up of gas in the stomach and/or intestines that is not released through flatulence or burping. Bloating is often accompanied by abdominal pain, ranging from mild or dull to sharp and intense. This is a commonly encountered health issue — in fact, eleven percent of the general population reports frequent bloating, and seven percent complains of excessive belching. Passing gas ten times a day is average, and up to twenty times a day is normal. To expand on this (no pun intended), here's a run down on possible causes of your bloated belly:

  • Swallowing a surplus of air. This can happen when a person is nervous, chewing gum, drinking carbonated beverages, or drinking through a straw.
  • Consumption of certain foods, including Brussels sprouts, turnips, cabbage, beans, lentils, and carbonated drinks with high levels of fructose or sorbitol.
  • Consuming excess sodium, particularly in processed foods.
  • Lactose intolerance leads to gas buildup from undigested lactose in the large intestine.
  • High fiber foods can aid in digestion, but can also produce a lot of gas.
  • Fatty foods, which can prevent the stomach from emptying efficiently.

Whether you're a gourmet chef or a microwave meal maven, you can see that diet has a lot to do with abdominal bloating. Certain foods (such as the ones listed above) take longer to digest. This allows more time for bacterial fermentation in your colon and contributes to excess gas production. Foods that are partially broken down play a role in this phenomenon as well.

While daily abdominal bloating may cause you some discomfort, the good news is that it is usually not worrisome. Still, it is recommended to speak with your health care provider if you are experiencing severe abdominal pain that interferes with your daily routine, blood in your stool, diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, or severe heartburn. These may be signs of more serious conditions, such as celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome.

Speaking with your health care provider may answer any further questions and help you come up with a solution that best fits your lifestyle. Columbia students can make an appointment by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC). Hope these tips leave you feeling full of relief, not gas!  

Alice