Flatulence, or intestinal gas expelled through the rectum, is one of the oldest human complaints. The typical adult passes gas up to 25 times a day, an amount deemed normal by gastroenterologists. Flatulence is rarely a symptom of bowel cancer or any other serious disease. But it can cause abdominal bloating and discomfort, as well as embarrassment.
What causes gas?
The offending gases, including carbon dioxide, hydrogen, methane, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide, are produced when bacteria normally present in the large intestine ferment incompletely digested carbohydrates—which are notoriously present in legumes like beans and lentils, and in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or Brussels sprouts.
Fermentable carbohydrates are found in a wide array of foods, including onions, garlic, barley, and wheat.
Large quantities of fructose in beverages, such as high-fructose corn syrup in fruit drinks, can also produce gas.
People who have trouble digesting certain foods, such as those with celiac disease or lactose intolerance, are also potential flatulence sufferers, as are those with irritable bowel syndrome. Gas can also be caused by stress and the nervous habit of frequent swallowing or eating or drinking too fast. Carbonation in soft drinks and other beverages is also a trigger.
What if you do nothing?
Unless the flatulence is excessive or causing abdominal discomfort, there is no reason to do anything about it. If it does become excessive, it can usually be reduced through basic changes in your diet.
Home remedies for gas
Although it is usually not a serious symptom, flatulence can cause embarrassment and discomfort. Here are ways to reduce intestinal gas production.
- Be aware of foods that cause flatulence. Foods with the fewest complex carbohydrates cause the fewest flatulent consequences. These include fish, meat, grapes, berries, nuts, and eggs. In general, foods that are highest in complex carbohydrates, and thus likely to produce excess intestinal gas, include beans, peas, lentils, soybeans, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. However, many other foods contain fermentable carbohydrates that can be problematic, such as apples, pears, citrus fruits, grains, and carrots. And beverages with high-fructose corn syrup can also be flatulence producers. In some people, prune juice, milk, and milk products can also produce gas.
- Gradually increase your fiber intake. Eating food rich in fiber is one of the best ways to prevent constipation and ensure soft, bulky stools. If you’re eating less than the recommended 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily, you need to increase your fiber intake. Be prudent, because introducing too much fiber at once may quickly lead to increased flatulence. Eat moderate amounts of fiber-rich foods at first, gradually increasing your intake over a period of time. If specific fiber-rich foods continue to disturb your system, reduce or eliminate them from your diet.
- Soak beans before cooking. Soaking uncooked beans four to five hours or overnight will remove some of the water-soluble carbohydrates that cause gas. You must discard the soaking water and then cook and simmer the beans slowly, then discard the water once again.
- Chew food thoroughly and slowly. Gulping food and eating or drinking quickly increases the amount of air you swallow, which can contribute to flatulence.
- Avoid constipation. When you’re constipated, the passage of food through the gastrointestinal tract is slowed, thereby stepping up fermentation. Eat high-fiber foods and drink plenty of fluids.
- Avoid diet candies containing sorbitol, xylitol, or other sugar alcohols. Read labels carefully. These artificial sweeteners are often used in sugarless gums and candies and can cause or contribute to flatulence and diarrhea.
- Beano may help. Beano is a dietary supplement containing an enzyme that is said to help break down the complex sugars found in beans into simple sugars that can be comfortably digested. It may reduce flatulence in some people.
- Don’t expect relief from other over-the-counter remedies. Antifoaming agents (such as simethicone), found in some “antacid-antigas” preparations, merely change large gas bubbles into smaller ones—hardly a remedy for flatulence. Bulk-forming laxatives can actually promote the kind of fermented residues that cause the problem in the first place. As for products containing “activated charcoal,” there’s little or no evidence that they can actually absorb gas in humans, as they claim; and they can interfere with the absorption of birth control pills and other drugs.
How to prevent gas
Use the home remedies described above to avoid excessive flatulence.
When to call your doctor about gas
Although sometimes embarrassing, flatulence is generally not a medical problem. Contact your physician if you suddenly develop intestinal gas accompanied by abdominal bloating or diarrhea that lasts for a few days. This could be a sign of irritable bowel syndrome. Persistent and severe flatulence may also be a symptom of gallbladder problems, inflammation of the intestines such as ileitis or colitis, or cancer that affects the colon and intestinal tract. Also contact your physician if the self-care remedies suggested above don’t work and you have questions or concerns.
What your doctor will do
After a physical examination and detailed history to rule out any serious ailment, your physician may recommend diagnostic tests if a digestive disorder is suspected. If none is found, no treatment is necessary, and your doctor will probably recommend a low-flatulence diet. If tests uncover lactose intolerance, you'll be given dietary measures to adopt which should help ease the associated flatulence.
Also see Anal Itching: Causes and Treatments.