Is your tummy often swollen and uncomfortable? There are lots of potential causes – and yes, helter-skelter hormones are in the mix. Here’s what you need to know about bloating around menopause
What exactly is bloating?
It’s generally defined as a full feeling in your tummy, usually caused by gas (wind) or fluid in your gastrointestinal tract. It might make your abdomen swell – some women even find they temporarily go up a dress size or two when bloated - and can feel really uncomfortable. When bloating’s caused by gas, it will be centred in the tummy area, come and go, and can be painful if the trapped wind causes cramps. When it’s caused by fluid, this is water retention and will usually affect other parts of your body, including your hands and feet.
How is menopause linked to bloating?
You can experience bloating at any point in your life but for some women, menopause can be a trigger. "I have bloating almost like I'm full of wind but nothing escapes," says Rach on our Live Better With Menopause community forum. Why is it happening? During the menopause transition, hormones can fluctuate wildly, and high oestrogen levels can cause your body to try to hang onto fluids, leading to bloating from water retention. Meanwhile, changes in your gastrointestinal tract during and after menopause can affect your digestion, making it more sluggish and leading to gas-related bloating. And as stress can affect your digestion, any emotional difficulties around menopause itself or life situations that tend to occur at midlife – such as looking after elderly parents while raising kids – may also contribute.
Your 8-point beat-the-bloat plan
Luckily, some simple lifestyle changes can help a lot.
1. Drink plenty of fluids
Strange though it may sound, your body is more likely to hold onto fluid if you’re dehydrated, so keep drinking up. Avoid fizzy drinks, which introduce gas into your digestive system. Plain water, low-fat milk, plant milk and teas can all contribute to your fluid intake - so staying hydrated doesn’t have to be boring.
2. Keep moving
Staying active improves gut motility – the rate at which food moves through your digestive system – which helps reduce gassy bloating. It can also ease water retention. And exercise is one of the best ways to lower stress levels. You don’t have to hit the gym – brisk walking, yoga, dancing or swimming can all help.
3. Check your diet
Certain foods are linked to gas, including beans and pulses, veg such as cabbage and broccoli, and fatty foods. And for some, fermentable carbohydrates such as fructose, found at high levels in some fruits, and lactose, the sugar found in dairy products, can cause bloating. You could try keeping a food diary to see if you notice any connections – if you do, it’s best to work with a doctor or dietitian to make sure you avoid trigger foods without cutting out important nutrients.
4. Deal with stress
You may not be able to control what’s going on in your life but there are steps you can take to reduce the emotional impact. There’s no one-size-fits-all stress-buster so try to figure out what works for you – it may be baking, gardening, walking, yoga or meditation, for example. What’s important is to carve out time on a regular basis to do something that absorbs and relaxes you.
5. Watch how you eat
It’s not all about what you eat – the way you eat is important too. Wolfing down too much in one sitting or grabbing snacks on the go can both contribute to bloating as you don’t digest the food properly. Try to sit down for meals, without distractions such as the TV, and eat smaller meals. One clever tip is to put your fork down between mouthfuls – this encourages you to chew properly, and as chewing is the first stage of digestion, this can really make a difference.
6. Try upping your probiotics
Some women find eating more probiotic foods – such as live natural yoghurt and fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi – can be helpful with bloating. This may be because these foods contain the good bacteria that contribute to healthy gut flora, important for good digestion. Or you could take a probiotic supplement, suggests Live Better With Menopause community member Junie. At the moment, the scientific evidence behind probiotics isn’t solid but it’s worth a go – studies suggest bifidobacteria may be best when bloating’s an issue.
7. Seek help
There are various over-the-counter medicines that can help with bloating from gas, so speak to a pharmacist. Your doctor can prescribe medication to help ease water retention. HRT may be helpful, too.
8. Know the red flag symptoms
Rarely, bloating can be a sign of ovarian cancer. Bloating usually comes and goes but if it sticks around, you should always check it out with your GP, as persistent bloating can be a tell-tale sign of a more serious issue. Other symptoms of ovarian cancer can include feeling full very quickly after eating or generally losing your appetite, pelvic or abdominal pain, and urinary symptoms, such as needing to pee more often or more urgently than usual. While these signs are all more likely to be down to something less serious, it’s important to be on the safe side. If a symptom is frequent, new for you and doesn’t go away, it’s time to book an appointment.
Related article: The best foods to manage your menopause symptoms