Here’s Why You’re So Gassy

It’s not pretty, but it’s true: Everybody farts. In fact, we humans are prone to passing a lot of gas. “The data seems to suggest that everyone passes about two liters of gas a day,” explains Patricia Raymond, MD, a physician in private practice in Norfolk, VA and a fellow of the American College of Gastroenterology. (Another fun fact, in case you’re counting: It’s normal to fart anywhere between 13 and 21 times per day.) But some days, you may feel like you’re generating way more than your fair share. If your gas suddenly seems fouler or more frequent, or if you’re feeling more bloated or burp-y than usual, there could be a number of things going on — but even if you feel concerned enough to want to ask a doc about it, it’s not exactly the most comfortable thing to talk about. So, to save you the pain, we spoke with Dr. Raymond about the possible reasons you might be feeling so gassy, plus what you can do about each.

You’re swallowing too much air.

Intestinal gas comes from two main sources: air that’s swallowed and makes its way into the digestive tract, and the gaseous byproduct of bacteria breaking down food in your large intestine. Loud but odorless episodes are usually a result of the former, says Dr. Raymond, while those emissions with an, um, stronger smell are usually byproducts of the latter. If you’re experiencing a lot of that first type — the mostly odorless kind — accompanied by bloating, it could be that you’re simply swallowing too much excess air. The technical term for this is “aerophagia,” and it often happens if you’re eating your meals quickly, chewing gum, or drinking lots of carbonated beverages. It can also happen if, say, your nose is stuffed up, and you’re breathing through your mouth more. (So that’s why, on top of sneezing and coughing, you might feel bloated when you have a cold.) “Usually, people swallow air without even realizing it,” Dr. Raymond says, so it’s important to look to your habits. Often simply slowing down while you eat or cutting back on soda will solve the problem. You're on an airplane.
Yes, in addition to Montezuma's revenge, there is the very real phenomenon of airplane farts. When you're on a plane cruising at a high altitude the gas in your body expands, leading to a bloated feeling and, yes, more flatulence, according to researchers writing in the New Zealand Medical Journal. In that paper, the researchers argued that airlines should consider using activated charcoal (an odor absorber) in seat cushions to help make flights more comfortable. You’re eating healthier.
Now it’s time to talk about the stinkier version, which is often a sign of good things happening in your body, believe it or not. Most of the food we eat gets digested as it moves through the stomach and small intestine. But the foods and nutrients that aren’t absorbed early in the digestion process are passed through to the large intestine to be processed. Here, the leftovers begin to ferment (thanks to your beneficial gut bacteria), a process that further breaks down the food but produces methane and nitrogen gas at the same time. These gases are just a natural byproduct of the process, which is why everyone makes a stink sometimes, Dr. Raymond says. The sad news is that some of the most nutritious foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole-grain products, and of course, beans and legumes, are among the most potent gas-creators — at least at first. That’s because they contain big helpings of fiber, which isn’t digested fully by the stomach or small intestine. Fortunately, your intestines can and will adjust to increased fiber intake over time, so you should notice some relief as your healthy eating habits become routine. Another culprit: onions or cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. These foods contain a carbohydrate called raffinose, which the stomach and the small intestine are also unable to digest. When it comes to healthy eating, the pluses obviously outweigh the negatives, Dr. Raymond says. “You don’t want to avoid [these foods] altogether, because they’re good for you. But maybe you don’t eat them before a date or a big work presentation,” she advises. You could have an absorption problem.
Particularly noxious odors, on the other hand, may be a sign that your body’s not properly absorbing certain nutrients. “People can have all kinds of malabsorption problems — [in reaction to] carbs, grease, protein, you name it,” Dr. Raymond explains. The most common nutrient to cause these problems is certain kinds of carbohydrates — specifically, sugars. Lactose, a natural sugar found in dairy products, is a big one: Approximately 65% of people have a reduced ability to digest it, and they get gassy (or worse) when they drink milk or eat cheese or ice cream. Another common intolerance is to sugar alcohols like xylitol and sorbitol, which are often used as low-calorie or zero-calorie sweeteners. Keeping a food diary may be helpful in this case, since identifying which foods are causing your symptoms can be tricky. “You probably won’t get gas for a few hours after eating — so if you notice it right after lunch, the problem is probably what you had for breakfast,” Dr. Raymond says. Your doctor can also help you identify the source of your problem, as well as solutions. These may involve cutting back on certain foods, avoiding them completely, or taking an over-the-counter dietary enzyme. (Beano, for example, helps people better digest beans and vegetables, while Lactaid helps if you’re lactose-intolerant.) For severe cases of flatulence, doctors may recommend activated charcoal capsules, which can soak up gas and odors in the gut before they cause a stink. Or less commonly, it could be a sign of a medical condition.
Although gas is one of those things everyone experiences from time to time, if you’re dealing with recurrent episodes, or gas and bloating that comes with pain or other symptoms like diarrhea or constipation, it’s worth talking to your doctor. More serious symptoms that interfere with your life can signal a number of medical conditions, from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to celiac disease. The bottom line, Dr. Raymond says: “It’s important to figure out where the gas is coming from so you can correct the underlying problem.”

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