It's not a subject that lends itself to cocktail party talk, a first date -- or any date, for that matter. Yet who among us can claim to never have had an embarrassing emission from time to time? Whether we like to talk about it or not, all of us produce gas throughout the day, every day. Most of the time, flatulence is one of life's minor annoyances -- and one that we might all feel happier without. But it exists for a purpose.
What makes gas, anyway?
Gas forms from a number of sources -- most commonly from swallowed air or as a byproduct from foods that are broken down and mixed with normal bacteria in the colon or large intestine. (You can thank colon bacteria for the often-unpleasant odor.) The stomach also produces carbon dioxide gas that's absorbed into the blood stream.
Gas from swallowed air -- made up of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide -- usually ends up in the stomach. Most swallowed air is released through burping, though some of it travels downward through the intestines and is released through the rectum. Bacteria in the large intestine break down sugar, starches and other fibers found in food; hydrogen, carbon dioxide and sometimes methane gas are the byproducts, which also escape through the southern route.
If you think you have excessive gas, consider that most people pass gas at least 14 times a day, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Our diet, our exercise habits, certain pastimes -- such as chewing gum and eating mints -- and the state of our digestive tract all play a role in how much gas our bodies produce and whether it causes discomfort.
Chronic, excessive gas could be a symptom of a serious disorder. In most cases, however, excess gas and any discomfort caused by it is highly treatable, often simply by paying more attention to what you eat, reducing the amount of air you swallow, and making some other lifestyle changes.
So if having gas is normal, why am I so uncomfortable?
You may be swallowing a lot of air when you eat, drink, or chew gum. This can make you feel bloated, result in abdominal gas pains, and cause you to belch more often than usual. Another reason could be that some people just produce more intestinal gas than others. This may be because they have low levels of certain digestive enzymes, complex proteins that break down certain food. For example, many people lack the enzyme lactase, which is necessary for digestion of sugars found in milk products.
For those affected with so-called lactose intolerance, drinking a glass of milk, scoffing down a cheese sandwich, or enjoying an ice cream sundae can mean bloating, abdominal cramps, and enough gas to make you feel like you can levitate.
What can I do for relief?
If you have abdominal pain, bloating and gas, it may be a sign of a serious digestive disorder, so you should consult your doctor. If it's a functional disorder -- meaning that it's not caused by an infection or organic disease -- your doctor can help you look for other causes. Some foods may make you gassy and uncomfortable, and reducing your intake of them could keep that gas wave at bay. At the top of the list of gas makers are the foods that are odiferous while cooking, such as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and turnips. Corn, nuts, onions, garlic, carbonated beverages, Olestra (artificial fat), and artificial sweeteners such as sorbitol in candies and gums can cause gas in susceptible individuals. And the relationship of beans to gas is certainly well known, as reflected in popular films such as Blazing Saddles.
Some people find they can eat gas-producing vegetables with no discomfort as long they're cooked. In his book Freedom from Digestive Distress, Dr. Gary Gitnick recommends eliminating all the possible food and drink offenders, then, once your symptoms have gone away, gradually reintroducing them into your diet. That way you can tell which are the culprits for you.
Gitnick, co-chief of the Division of Digestive Diseases at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine, also says that moderate exercise is remarkably helpful in relieving all sorts of digestive ailments, including flatulence. He counsels his patients to do some sort of aerobic exercise for 30 minutes a day; that could mean as little as two brisk 15-minute walks daily.
Aside from getting exercise and watching what you eat, as odd as it may sound, you can cut down on gas by reducing the amount of air you swallow. Activities that increase air swallowing include smoking, gum chewing, sucking on hard candies, guzzling anything, and drinking carbonated beverages. You're likely to swallow more air when you drink from a bottle or use a straw than when you drink straight from a glass. A pair of poorly fitting dentures can increase the air that goes down your gullet. If you tend to inhale your food, you're taking in a lot of air as well. Eating slowly and chewing your food well cuts down on gas caused by air.
You may or may not see the connection, but stress can also knock your digestive tract off track -- and that includes increasing the level of gas that you produce. Finding a way to relax could not only make you feel calmer, it could also cut down on gas buildup in your system. For example, 16 adults with digestive problems, including gas, were taught meditation, asked to practice regularly, and tracked for three months, according to a recent study in Behavioral Research Therapy. Through patients' symptom journals, the study revealed "significant improvements in flatulence and belching."
You can also ask your doctor about digestive aids, such as activated charcoal -- available at health food stores and some drugstores -- that help reduce gas buildup in the colon. Some people take over-the-counter products like Beano, which contains a food enzyme that helps in digestion. Products with simethicone, sold at drugstores, can also help with occasional bouts of gas.
But your best bet may be to tackle the problem at the source, whether it's through diet, exercise, or keeping your stress barometer low.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health/digest/pubs/gas/gas.htm
American Dietetic Association http://www.eatright.org
American College of Gastroenterology http://www.acg.gi.org
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. "Gas in the digestive tract."
Merck Manual-home edition, sec 9. Ch 107, Bowel Movement Disorders, Flatulence.
Gitnick, Gary, Freedom from Digestive Distress, Three Rivers Press, New York.
Keefer L, Blanchard EB, "The effects of relaxation response meditation on the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome: results of a controlled treatment study," Behav Res Ther, Vol. 39(7):801-811