Questions You're Too Embarrassed to Ask About Passing Gas, Answered

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Imagine you are on an elevator with about seven other individuals who you work with in a professional environment, but don't know very well. Suddenly, you accidentally pass gas. It is blatantly obvious who the guilty party is, but you are trying to play it as if it was just the wind blowing or someone else is to blame. You have another 30 floors to wait out the stench. What do you say or do?

As a practicing gastroenterologist, I hear these types of stories all the time and patients come to see us asking for a treatment. Other common issues patients experience are abdominal distention, discomfort, and bloating—which sometimes can be so bad that patients’ have described it as if “there was a conversation going on inside their bowels.”

One of the first things I tell my patients is that everyone passes gas. On average, we all pass gas 13 to 21 times each day which is between 500 to 1500 ml of gas.

Why am I so gassy?

A small amount of gas expelled comes from swallowing air, but the majority of gas production usually is the byproduct of the breakdown of nutrients by intestinal bacteria. Excess gas usually means that you are actually eating a healthy, fiber-rich diet. The normal gut flora, aka the bacteria in your colon, help digest certain foods so they are easily absorbed and used as energy by our bodies.

In the process of extracting particular nutrients and vitamins during the digestive process, certain gases such as hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide are released. Although these gases themselves are odorless, certain foods contain the compound sulfur, which when digested release sulfate gases, consequently causing that peculiar smell of gas we all are familiar with.

What kinds of foods are more likely to cause increased flatulence?

There are a lot of carbohydrates present in vegetables, grains and fruits that our bodies don't have the enzymes necessary to break them down to be digested. These end up in large intestine, where microbes chew them apart and use them for energy through the process of fermentation. As a byproduct, intestinal gas is mostly produced by the bacterial fermentation in the gastrointestinal tract.

How can I prevent passing gas so often? Should I avoid those foods?

For most of us, actively trying to limit our gas production isn't necessary. The amount of gas you produce is the result of the balance in both your gut bacteria and diet, and unless you're experiencing other sorts of problems — such as painful bloating — it is unwise to mess with it.

For many people, the knee-jerk reaction to combat flatulence is to stop eating things that produce gas. However, these foods, which have complex carbohydrates, are nutrition for the bacteria in our gut, and consuming them is necessary to living a healthy lifestyle.

Many people who believe they suffer from excessive gas production actually just have trouble with the flow of that gas through their intestines, or the movement of the food bolus, down the GI system (poor peristalsis), and suffer with constipation. In this case, changing your diet will not solve the problem.

There are conditions that will truly increase the amount of gas you produce, such as lactose intolerance, when you lack the enzyme to digest dairy products leading to excessive production of gas and these kinds of conditions are something that you should discuss with your physician.

Moral of the story?

Flatulence is a normal physiologic event and we encourage people to exercise courtesy when in public.

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