Every woman has felt it and most have complained about it at one time or another, but for some, bloating can be toxic; what seems like a harmless nuisance is a classic symptom of some of the most dangerous diseases that strike women. How do you know if what you’re feeling is a case of indigestion or a warning sign that something is seriously wrong with your health? Here’s our guide.
What Is Bloating?
When your lunch reaches your stomach, acids begin the digestive process, but the bulk of the work is handled by the small intestine. There, enzymes process the sugars, protein, and fat and help your body absorb them. If large molecules of food survive that step, they arrive in the large intestine (colon) where bacteria finish the job. As they work, those bacteria release gas, and, voila, your intestines become distended, you feel overly full and crampy and your pants don’t fit as well.
For the population at large, bloating is on the rise due to a perfect storm of lifestyle factors: an increased use of ingredients such as sorbitol and fructose that are not easily digested in the small intestine, declining levels of exercise (which helps keep the gut working properly), and a loss of helpful intestinal bacteria due to the overuse of some antibiotics. Bloating caused by these factors is uncomfortable, but harmless. But here are three times when you need to take your bloating seriously.
When the large intestine does its work (squeezing bowel movements through the body and out), sometimes the lining is pushed out into little pouches, creating a condition called diverticulosis. If fecal matter gets waylaid in those pouches, an infection can set in causing diverticulitis, a much more serious condition. Once an infection has begun in your intestine, there is a risk it can rupture into your abdominal cavity and cause a life-threatening infection.
Symptoms of Diverticulosis
Diverticulosis may not progress to diverticulitis and cause a problem, and it often does not have symptoms. But these signs may indicate that you have diverticulosis and are therefore more prone to diverticulitis.
- Difficulty achieving a complete bowel movement
- Frequent bowel movements that are pellet-shaped
- Cramping in the lower left quadrant of your abdomen (not severe)
Symptoms of Diverticulitis
In addition to the symptoms of diverticulosis, signs of diverticulitis include
- Severe pain (the kind that makes you wonder if you should go to the emergency room)
- Bloating that persists for weeks at a time rather than being intermittent
- Blood in your stool
2. Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth
Your small intestine absorbs the nutrients from food through villi, small projections on the intestinal wall. If bacteria grow in your small intestine (where it normally doesn’t hang out) they can destroy villi, blocking the absorption of nutrients. Then larger pieces of food once again find their way to the small intestine where those gas-producing bacteria go to work on them, and, bingo, you’ve got bloating and diarrhea.
Symptoms of Bacterial Overgrowth
- Bloating, particularly after meals
Bacterial growth in the large intestine isn’t widely understood in the medical community, so you may have to ask your doctor to look for it. Some offices will have breath tests that detect the presence of bacteria or they can sample fluid from the small intestine and analyze it.
3. Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer used to be called the silent killer, because it exhibits few symptoms until it has progressed to an untreatable state. But doctors now recognize that if you listen carefully, the disease whispers a few warning signs. A recent article in the British Medical Journal found that bloating is the most predictive one. When ovaries turn cancerous they often swell, causing a swelling in the belly that resembles bloating. Hormonal changes that occur during ovarian cancer can also cause bloating. One in 40 times bloating will mean ovarian cancer.
What are the Symptoms?
- Significant changes in your menstrual cycle
- Persistent bloating (especially if your girth increases and does not go down)
- Postmenopausal bleeding
- Frequent urination
- Rectal bleeding
The Bottom Line on Bloating
If you experience any of the following symptoms with bloating (or experience bloating that lasts longer than a week), make an appointment with your doctor to get thoroughly checked out:
- A change in bowel habits
- Weight loss
- Blood in your stool