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Do You Suffer From Shortness of Breath After Eating?

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Pandula is a medical doctor by profession and is also a health informatics expert with a PhD from the University of Oslo, Norway.

Introduction

We all have experienced shortness of breath at some point in time, mostly when we have exerted ourselves. In such instances, the reason would largely be the lack of oxygen received by the body. Therefore, breathing fast will allow the body to replenish the requirement for oxygen as more air can be inhaled and more used-up air can be exhaled in a rapid manner. However, when a person experiences shortness of breath after eating, it may not necessarily be due to the lack of oxygen as one experience after exercise. In this instance, the culprit may be the bloating of the stomach, which may be the result of several factors.

Link with bloating

When one feels bloated, an obvious manifestation is a build up of pressure within the abdominal cavity or the place where everyone refer to as the 'tummy'. In humans, the contents in the abdominal cavity (e.g. the stomach and the intestines) are separated from the content in the chest cavity (e.g. the lungs, pleura and the heart) by a muscular partition known as the diaphragm. During breathing, the diaphragm will also move up and down allowing the chest and the lungs to expand and contract. The expansion and the contraction of the chest create the necessary positive and negative pressure within the chest cavity facilitating enough lung expansion to inhale adequate amounts of oxygen. When the tummy distends after eating, it will push against the diaphragm and will prevent it from expanding enough. This means that the body will not be getting enough oxygen to facilitate proper digestion and other bodily functions. To overcome this challenge, the breathing will become faster thus making the person feel - short of breath.

Mechanism of breathing

The abdominal cavity and the chest cavity is separated by the diaphragm.

The abdominal cavity and the chest cavity is separated by the diaphragm.

Causes of a bloated stomach

As mentioned earlier, there may be different reasons why a person may feel bloated. Among them, the role played by various foods is a significant factor.

Foods that cause bloating and shortness of breath

There can be many food varieties giving rise to bloating. Among them, vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, onions, cucumber, beans and peas are the most prominent. These veggies contain complex sugars that may not be broken down in the stomach and in the small intestine in full. Thus, the sugars in undigested form will pass on to the large intestine where the bacteria will digest these sugars creating gas.

Fruits such as bananas, pears, prunes and even raw apples can cause bloating while wheat and wheat bran could also give rise to bloating among some people. In the case of fruits, the culprit may be a sugar known as fructose which is hard to be broken down in the stomach. As a result, the undigested fructose will travel down the intestine and will be digested by the bacteria thus forming gas. In the case of wheat and bran, the gas is formed as a result of bacteria working on the undigested fiber that is also one of the strengths of these food varieties.

For some, milk and milk products could give rise to excessive bloating while certain other people may experience bloating following consuming fatty and fried foods. Carbonated drinks, beer and red vine also cause bloating while in certain instances packaged foods can also lead to bloating. In the case of milk and milk products, people may develop a condition known as the 'lactose intolerance' where they lack an enzyme that is required to digest the 'milk sugar', lactose. As a result, lactose will travel undigested down towards the large intestine where it will be broken down by the gut bacteria forming gas. In addition, in this instance, more water will also be pulled into the gut causing further bloating. In terms of fried food, the extra time it takes to breakdown fat would contribute to the gas formation. Carbonated drinks on the other hand would contribute to bloating by releasing the air infused into it by the manufacturers. Packaged foods may contribute to bloating when it contain too much sodium or certain sweeteners that may retain water within the intestine and allow gas forming bacteria to digest respectively.

Cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli are some vegetables that may cause gas and lead to bloating

Cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli are some vegetables that may cause gas and lead to bloating

Bloating due to eating too much foods and eating fast

It is well known that when you eat too much food, you will invariably feel full. This may cause distress and shortness of breath for many people. Similar manifestation may also be seen when you eat too quickly which makes you to swallow more air with the food you eat. The result is a bloated stomach pressing against the diaphragm.

Bloating due to GERD (Gastro-esophageal reflux disease)

GERD is a condition we commonly refers to as 'gastritis' or 'acid reflux'. In most instances, the underlying cause for acid reflux is the partial closure of the gate between the esophagus and the stomach. As a result, the acids in the stomach can flow upwards against gravity and sometimes cause irritation. At the same time, the acids may also cause constriction in the bronchial tree within the lungs thus causing shortness of breath. While acid reflux may be a common phenomenon among a large portion of the population, constant or recurring acid reflux should be treated properly before it causes serious ulceration and bleeding.

Lung problems leading to shortness of breath after eating

By now you may have realized that when eating, the body requires more oxygen and therefore more effort is required to digest the foods. The reason for this phenomenon is that when extracting energy stored in the foods being eaten, the cells in the intestine must make use of oxygen. Oxygen in this case functions as the energy source for the hard working intestinal cells. If there is a limitation in the lungs as a result of chronic diseases such as COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder), asthma, pneumonia and even conditions such as bronchitis, the requirement for oxygen may not be fulfilled. This would mean that such persons will also experience shortness of breath after eating even without feeling bloated as the lungs will not be able to replenish the oxygen requirement.

Link with heart disease

Breathing is not only contributed to by the lungs, but also by other organs such as the brain and the heart. When the heart does not function adequately as in the case of irregular patterns of contraction (arrhythmia) and in heart failure, the body will find it difficult to meet the demand created from eating a heavy meal. The reason being that an efficiently pumping heart is required to carry the blood that gets oxygenated in the lungs to the cells that are located in the intestines, which now require more oxygen to convert the digested food into energy.

This would result in rapid and shallow breathing that gives rise to breathlessness. In contrast to most other causes, shortness of breath due to heart ailments may not resolve with time. This means that a persistent breathlessness following meals should be brought to the attention of your medical practitioner and appropriate investigations should be performed.

Dealing with shortness of breath after eating

When looking at the multiple causes of breathlessness after eating, it becomes apparent that you may have to first find out the underlying cause soon. This may require the help of your doctor. However, there are several ways in which you can prevent such experiences from taking place due to benign reasons.

Eating small amounts and eating relatively slowly will help you avoid unnecessary bloating. Reducing the amount of gas forming foods will also reduce gas buildup in the stomach although you may want to identify the foods which cause most distress than reducing all foods that may produce some degree of gases.

You should also reduce the intake of gaseous drinks such as soft drinks if you are experiencing the symptoms of bloating and shortness of breath after eating. Specially when such drinks are taken with food, you may experience considerable discomfort.

At times, you can also prevent these symptoms after eating by treating GERD using appropriate medications and by lessening the acid build-up within the stomach. Eating frequent small meals may be the right path to take if this fits you best.

Central chest pain may be a sign of GERD

Central chest pain may be a sign of GERD

Dealing with serious underlying causes

If the breathlessness following eating does not resolve with simple measures as described earlier within a short period of time, it may be a good idea to seek the help of your doctor. The doctor will be able to assess you and perform the necessary investigations to ascertain the exact cause of your symptoms. Depending on the cause, the doctor will prescribe or refer you for appropriate treatment. The key advise here is not to postpone seeing your doctor simply because you think you can tolerate the shortness of breath and because it manifest on and off.

Check your knowledge

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What you should do if you regularly feel shortness of breath after eating?
    • disregard
    • wait until it resolves by itself
    • seek medical advise immediately
    • stop eating

Answer Key

  1. disregard

Comments

Carrie Lee Night from Northeast United States on May 08, 2020:

Thank you for sharing :) Its rare on hubpages to have a medical professional such as a doctor post a useful medical topic that may get overlooked :) Have a wonderful week :)

Celeste Wilson on May 14, 2013:

Voted interesting and useful. I have an allergic reaction to any fermented food like pickles, wine etc. If I have these in excess I develop shortness of breath. So I found your article extremely interesting. I think I also eat too fast and I didn't realize that it could make my condition worse. Thank you for an interesting article.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 06, 2013:

Very helpful information! Voted up and sharing.

Dr Pandula (author) from Norway on April 26, 2012:

Yes it is jeanihess! thanks for your comments!

jeanihess from Cape Town South Africa on April 25, 2012:

With increasing overweight problems this must be a common problem now in obese societies!

Dr Pandula (author) from Norway on April 14, 2012:

I agree. Thanks for the comments cat on a soapbox.

Catherine Tally from Los Angeles on April 14, 2012:

This is a very helpful hub. Although some things, if persistent, shouldn't be ignored; there are often more common explanations than the big ones we all fear. Thanks!

MSantana from Madison Wisconsin on September 04, 2011:

This conditions although common could be really serious. Stomach cancer is one of the most serious problems related to this. If your doctor prescribe antiacids and do not take your symptoms seriously ask for a second opinion. I also recommend that people consult med sites.

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