Bloating and Inflammation: What’s the Difference, and Should You Be Concerned?

Here's how to classify that post-lunch food baby.

Even if you’re well aware that bloating and inflammation aren’t the exact same thing, can you articulately and confidently explain the difference? Inflammation definitely has a medical ring to it, and bloating is a more ubiquitous term that refers to digestive-related discomfort ("food babies," anyone?). But, still, what’s the real difference?

I, for one, have been using the terms pretty interchangeably, and given that I work in an office that publishes content about one or the other all the time, I’d like to get to the bottom of this matter, which is currently bloating my brain (or is it inflaming? #ugh). And, according to several experts, there are, in fact, key differences that are important to note.

Here's what you need to know about bloating, inflammation, and the differences between the two.

What's inflammation?

Inflammation has been a hot topic the past few years, as a growing number of studies and body of research have linked it to several health issues like leaky gutcardiovascular issues, autoimmune diseases, and even painful periods. According to Massachusetts-based registered dietician Elizabeth Boham, MD, it's a reaction that occurs “when the body comes into contact with something it perceives as foreign or dangerous and produces substances to attack it,” which can result in physical symptoms such a fluid buildup, swelling, redness, or heat.

Perhaps counterintuitively, inflammation can sometimes be a good thing—a sign that your body is trying to ward off an infection. It's worrisome, however, when the inflammation is constant or frequent, Dr. Elizabeth Boham says.

Perhaps counterintuitively, this reaction means inflammation can sometimes be a good thing—a sign that your body is trying to ward off an infection. It's worrisome, however, when those symptoms are constant or even frequent, which Dr. Boham says happens when the intestinal barrier is damaged (see: leaky gut) or when "the body perceives food to be foreign and produces inflammatory chemicals when they come in contact." This is the type of reaction folks who have food allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances might experience.

Essentially, "acute inflammation is important in the healing process and for our immune system to work properly so we can fight off infection, but chronic inflammation has been linked to many diseases," Dr. Boham says. And it's the chronic, undesirable, condition that includes a visual component. Think: redness, swelling, stiff and painful joints, and areas of the body that are hot and painful to the touch.

And how is that different than bloating?

Bloating is probably NBD, medically speaking. Dr. Boham describes it as "a non-technical term that people use when they feel like their belly gets distended after they eat." While it's usually just gas or swelling in the stomach area, there are a few ways that Tanya Zuckerbrot, RD, author, and creator of the high-fiber F-Factor Diet, says bloating can happen: Maybe you swallowed air (yes, really) while chewing gum, talking with food in your mouth, or eating too quickly. It can also occur if you're lacking important digestive enzymes for breaking down certain foods—like having a lactose intolerance—or consuming too much salt, which can cause fluid retention. Furthermore, Zuckerbrot says limiting fatty foods might alleviate your bloat, as you stomach will be able to "empty out faster, allowing gas to move quickly through your intestines."

When people talk about bloating, they're usually referring to gas or swelling in their stomach area.

Bloating is often associated with periods and being hormonal (I know it's not just me, folks), and Dr. Boham notes a potential reason why: The only thing unique about the gaseous condition for women, she says, is that it can come from water retention in the pelvic area or be combined with local inflammation in the uterus, which should subside with your cycle.

Do you need to see a doctor?

Bloating should eventually subside on its own (though you might be able to speed up the process with supplements); however, if the symptoms persist, you should see a health-care professional. (Dr. Boham says chronic or recurring bloating "could indicate a stomach infection or ovarian or colon cancer.")

If you're dealing with chronic or frequent inflammation—which Dr. Boham reiterates is tied to severe health consequences including heart disease, cancer, dementia and depression, asthma—diet changes might be your first line of attack. Dr. Boham suggests trying an elimination diet (no dairy, gluten, added sugars, or processed items) as well amping up your dose of anti-inflammatory foods and drinks

If this doesn't help, see a doctor—or, better yet, visit one before shifting your diet to attempt self-treatment—for CRP or ESR tests (blood tests used to measure inflammation, among other things) to confirm the existence and severity of inflammation. From there, treatment can take several different shapes, including a personalized diet, trying supplements for bloating, and a medication regimen you can create with your doctor.

What more of the skinning on bloating? It might also be caused by your hormones or even your LaCroix habit.

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