Created for Greatist by the experts at Healthline. Read more

Your belly has been with you through it all — every pregnancy, period cramp, bikini, and all-you-can-eat lobster night. There’s even a laugh named after it.

After all that living and laughing, you might have noticed a belly bulge. Maybe it appeared recently, or maybe you’ve had one all your life.

Not all belly bulges are created equal, and they’re definitely not all the result of weight gain. Sure, that’s one explanation, but did you know food intolerances, stress, and hormones could also be at work here?

Let’s explore all the causes — plus how to beat the bulge, if that’s your goal.

Stress is supposed to be a quick here-and-gone type thing — a surge of stress hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) to deal with whatever “threat” is on the horizon, and then back to your regular programming.

But life in 2020 ain’t for the faint of heart, and chronic stress could keep your bod pumping out cortisol even when there’s no immediate threat.

So what does that mean for your belly? There’s solid evidence that chronic stress increases belly fat and makes you crave foods that contribute to belly fat.

A large 2018 review of studies confirmed that sustained high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are strongly linked with excess abdominal fat and a higher risk for obesity. Enter: the stress belly.

But don’t go Googling crash diets, please. First of all, they’re not healthy. Second of all, restrictive diets have actually been shown to increase cortisol levels.

Instead, try to:

“Hey, I didn’t look like that this morning!” said everyone who’s ever looked down after feeling that tight, full feeling of good ol’ fashioned bloating.

That bulge you see is called distention, and it happens when that bloated feeling sends a signal to your brain to shift your diaphragm down and relax your abdominal wall muscles.

Bloating has a million explanations, including:

Postpartum belly bulge can be a combo of fat, loose skin, hormones, and the phenomenon of all your guts moving aside to make room for a new human.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a woman may gain anywhere from 11 to 40 pounds during pregnancy, depending on her body mass index (BMI).

And while you’ll lose some of that weight right away after birth, it can take time for your body to settle into its new normal, no matter what that may be. So be kind to yourself, OK?

Abdominal separation (called diastasis recti) can happen during or even after pregnancy. It can look like a bulge or pooch — or, more honestly, it can look like you’re still pregnant.

It happens when the two muscles that run up and down your abdomen separate to make room for your growing baby but don’t come back together.

This may happen in up to 60 percent of pregnancies (most commonly in second or subsequent pregnancies), but that doesn’t mean you have to live with it.

Good news: If it doesn’t resolve on its own, you can ditch this bulge with a special exercise plan from a physical therapist or postpartum specialist. These exercises are safe for postpartum and work to bring your abs back together where they belong.

Surgery is also an option. The first step, though, is to talk to your doc. They’ll get you a diagnosis and refer you to the right person.

The science is in: Drinking alcohol contributes to belly fat, especially when you drink a lot of it.

For one thing, your brewski could be interfering with your body’s fat-burning abilities. When alcohol is present, your liver will always choose to burn that first, before any fat.

It’s also a calorie issue. Beer can also be pretty high in calories, and that post-drink snack attack may also lead to some less-than-healthy choices.

How can you tell if it’s a beer belly? Touch it. That hard-to-the-touch feeling is visceral fat packed in between your organs, pushing your abs outward. But hey! Visceral fat breaks down quicker than other types.

To beat the beer belly, try to:

  • drink less and opt for lower-calorie beers
  • add more whole foods to your diet
  • get your sweat on more often

As if hot flashes, hormonal swings, and period changes weren’t enough, weight gain is another of menopause’s many blessings. And it tends to settle in your midsection, thanks to the hormonal fluctuations that make every day an adventure.

Why? During menopause, our goddess estrogen is suddenly super unstable, eventually dipping out as your ovaries go into permanent hibernation. The result: low estrogen, a classic culprit of weight gain.

One particular form of estrogen called estradiol, which actually helps your body regulate weight and metabolism, is known to go MIA during this, um, special time.

Ready for a perfect storm? Menopause could coincide with other age-related belly bulge culprits, including:

  • Insulin resistance. It’s more common as you age, and it makes losing weight a heck of a lot harder.
  • Sub-par sleep. Super common during menopause (thanks, night sweats) and linked to increased belly fat.
  • Decreased muscle mass. Another fun side effect of aging and hormonal changes.

Belly bulge aside, having obesity can be dangerous and put women in particular at risk for conditions like heart disease and diabetes. That’s why a large 2019 review highlights the importance of maintaining a moderate weight before, during, and after menopause through diet and exercise.

If diet and exercise aren’t enough, you could also talk to your doc about hormonal therapy.

Food sensitivities, also called intolerances, are very real — especially to the 20 percent of the world’s population that deals with them.

You know what else is real? The havoc they wreak on your stomach. The most common symptoms are bloating, belly distention, gas, and diarrhea — ingredients for an intolerance-induced belly bulge.

Don’t confuse an intolerance with a food allergy, which is an immune response. An intolerance can mean your body has a rough time digesting certain foods or you’re sensitive to certain chemicals or properties in food.

Some common food triggers include:

Try eliminating any foods in question for 2 to 6 weeks, and then reintroduce them over 3 days and track your symptoms. This could ease some digestive woes, and your bulge might shrink up in the process.

Weight gain is a whole-body thing, but it’s true that some people gain more noticeably in their midsections. In general, weight gain occurs from consuming more calories than you burn through exercise or regular ol’ living.

Overeating is one explanation, but other factors like sleep deprivation, stress, certain health conditions, and hormonal changes or imbalances can also lead to weight gain.

If you’re looking to lose a bit of that belly, the most important thing is to make sure you’re doing it in a healthy way. While you can’t really target fat on certain areas of your body, you might try these science-backed ways to shed belly fat.

Sure, through diet and exercise you can change your body fat percentage and your BMI, but how and where your fat is distributed isn’t really in your control. It’s determined by:

  • genetics
  • age
  • sex
  • hormone levels

All together now: You can’t channel weight loss to just one part of your body. But these tips might help flatten things out.

Diet and exercise

It seems simple, but making some changes to your diet and getting moving on the regular can help you maintain a moderate weight.

Here are some things you can do:

Meds

There’s no magic pill for a flat stomach. But depending on what’s causing your belly bulge, a medication or supplement might help.

Talk to your doc about whether any of these options are right for you:

Soothe your stress

Reducing stress can have both physical and mental benefits, and it’s always a good idea. You could try:

  • meditation or breath work
  • a soothing, restorative bath
  • taking a walk or a bike ride — sunlight helps with weight loss too
  • spending time with your fam
  • listening to your favorite podcast
  • making time for your favorite self-care activities

Need more stress-relief inspo? Here are 27 ways to relax right this second.

Up your sleep game

Getting good-quality sleep — and enough of it — is key to both managing stress and maintaining a moderate weight.

Add these tips to your sleep strategy:

The key to tackling belly bulge starts with finding the cause. Alcohol, stress, postpartum conditions, menopause, food sensitivities, and weight gain are all possible belly bloaters.

Visceral fat in your midsection could lead to serious health conditions. While you can’t target weight loss to one part of your body, a balanced diet and a mix of aerobic and resistance exercise can help you shed visceral belly fat.

Some medications or supplements, like probiotics, might help keep bloating at bay. Check with your doctor to find out whether the cause of your bloating is treatable.

Managing your stress is key to preventing chronic hormonal issues that could lead to belly bulge. Good-quality sleep is also crucial to weight management and overall health.