It’s a fact of life: we all fart 15 to 25 times a day, whether you’re a bean-eating cowboy or a salad-munching bloke in a spiffy suit. And, yes, women pass gas too.
But while farting is a normal part of life, flatulence can become embarrassing and uncomfortable and may indicate serious gastrointestinal trouble.
Need help? Then read on.
What is flatulence and what causes it?
Flatulence (or flatus) is air or gas in the intestine that’s released through the rectum. It consists mainly of the odourless gas, carbon dioxide, but small quantities of other gases such as methane and hydrogen sulphide (which cause an unpleasant odour) are also present.
When bacteria begin to break down undigested food in the large intestine or colon, gas is formed. This causes the intestine to swell, which can cause cramping pain. If the intestinal wall is inflamed, it can become more sensitive than usual to normal amounts of flatus.
Some of the common causes of flatulence include:
- Eating foods high in fibre
- Eating foods or drinking beverages that your body cannot tolerate. An example is lactose intolernace, which occurs when your body lacks the enzymes to digest the milk sugar, lactose.
- Eating beans. There are carbohydrates in beans that cannot be digested by the body’s enzymes, which means the bacteria in the colon have to break them down, resulting in gas.
- Eating fruits that are high in fructose (fruit sugar), including watermelon, apples and overripe melons
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a chronic condition of the digestive system
- Malabsorption, which occurs when your intestine isn’t able to absorb certain nutrients from food
- Using antibiotics
Interestingly, men and women are equally affected by flatulence.
“I think it’s a social impression that men pass more bodily gas than women,” says Kelly Ansley, a registered dietician from South Africa. She explains that men do tend to have “worse” eating habits than women (think lots of refined carbohydrates and beer), which could worsen flatulence.
The good news is that, because the bulk of our intestinal gas results from what we eat and drink, certain dietary changes can help control it.
Gas-causing culprit foods
According to Ansley, a few common gas-causing culprit foods include:
- Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower
- Onions and leeks
- Peas and corn
- Peppers, radishes and turnips
- Iceberg lettuce and cucumber
- Beans, lentils and chickpeas
- Chewing gum
- Fizzy drinks
If you’re struggling with excessive gas, it’s worth keeping a diary of your reaction to the above foods to see which ones affect you most. Then consider cutting out the problem foods with the help of a dietician, who’ll ensure that you still get all the nutrients you need from other foods.
Excess gas may also be related to the portion size of carbohydrate-heavy meals. “Starches such as bread, baked goods and starchy vegetables can be fully digested in acceptable meal sizes. But when consumed in large quantities, they may result in a portion of undigested food, which then leads to increased gas formation.”
To prevent excessive gas formation after mealtimes, the carbohydrate portion of food on your plate (e.g. bread, rice, pasta) should be no bigger than your fist.
But what happens if these dietary adjustments have little or no effect? This would be a good time to explore the benefits of probiotics.
Although there are several over-the-counter medicines that can help treat the symptoms of flatulence, probiotics are often the preferred choice of health practitioners.
Research shows that probiotics protect against harmful bacteria in the gut, help with the absorption of nutrients from food, stimulate mucus production in the gastrointestinal tract, alter the fermentation pattern inside the colon, normalize bowel movements, and reduce flatulence. What’s more, several probiotic strains have been shown to provide relief for people with IBS as well as for those who are lactose intolerant.
Most yoghurt products have a probiotic benefit. However, registered dietician Faye Harrison says that, when using yoghurt to treat gastrointestinal problems, it’s best to choose probiotic-specific yoghurt. Look for words such as “live cultures” and “probiotics” on the label.
There are also several other great food sources of natural probiotic bacteria. These include:
- Fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi
- Miso, a fermented soybean-based product
- Kefir, a fermented milk-based beverage and a good choice if you’re a yoghurt fan
“Also increase your intake of prebiotics (non-digestible food ingredients found in oats, bananas, legumes, peas, barley, wheat bran and many other fruits and vegetables) to help encourage the growth of good bacteria in your gut,” advises Harrison.
She suggests slowly adding these foods to your diet as many of them contain fibre, which can worsen gas if you’re not used to eating fibre in large quantities. “People often develop a tolerance for the offending foods when these are eaten in small quantities,” Harrison says. “As their tolerance increases, your portions can be increased too.”
Of course, probiotics can also be taken in supplement form – a quick way to give your digestive system a boost. Speak to your doctor, pharmacist or dietician about a product that’s right for you.
When to see a doctor
Flatulence can sometimes point to a more serious problem, which may warrant a visit to the doctor.
“Gas is a normal by-product of digestion, and a certain amount of it is necessary for propulsion of bowel content and defecation,” says Dr Pappas. In other words, the gas helps to move your bowel content, so that what’s left after digestion can be excreted. “However, there are instances where gas can be abnormal in volume, frequency and odour.”
He says that while even the most severe episodes of flatulence are not life-threatening, certain symptoms should not be dismissed. “It’s wise to consult a dietician or doctor when it becomes excessive, and certainly when there’s pain or bleeding, or a change in your usual bowel habits.”
Still passing an embarrassing amount of gas? Our experts share a few more tips to get flatulence under control:
- Chew your food properly.
- Cook raw foods, such as vegetables, so that less effort is required by the bacteria in your colon to break them down.
- Don’t rush eating.
- Avoid large meals.
- Avoid chewing gum and drinking fizzy drinks (which introduce gas into your gastrointestinal system).
- Avoid drinking with a straw.
- Limit or avoid overconsumption of beer and other alcoholic beverages.
- Increase your intake of chlorophyll, found in leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale.