October 23, 2018 at 03:30AM
Even if hardly anybody admits it, everyone farts. But how much is normal? And can you learn something about your body from the way you pass gas? Robin Berzin, MD, CEO of the functional medicine practice Parsley Health, says flatulence can help you assess what’s going on with your health. Here, the Well+Good Council member explains why you’re tooting—and how you can use your newfound fart I.Q. to become even healthier.
Gas, flatulence, farting—call it what you want. Everyone does it; everyone pretends not to. But paying attention to your gas instead of ignoring it could help you uncover information about your body and lifestyle that you can use to resolve gas and bloating for good.
At the most basic level, gas is excess air trapped in the intestinal tract, but it comes from two different sources. First, you naturally swallow air while chewing, eating, drinking, and swallowing. The gas from this is usually odorless and made up of carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen.
The average healthy person passes gas between seven and 20 times a day.
Second, gas is a metabolic byproduct of digestion, produced when bacteria in your large intestine feed off of foods that were not well digested in your small intestine. Certain foods like cruciferous vegetables, beans, and lentils sometimes cause more gas because they’re high in indigestible fiber and contain specific complex carbohydrates that your gut microbiome thrives on. The gas produced by the fermentation of this indigestible food is the smelly type—mainly composed of hydrogen and methane. That doesn’t mean you need to stop eating these foods, just that you may have a little more gas when you do.
The average healthy person passes gas between seven and 20 times a day, but knowing your normal is important for determining any changes. If five times a day is normal for you and you suddenly notice a drastic change, you may want to pay attention to any changes in your diet and consult your doctor.
Here’s how to decode what your gas is trying to tell you about your health.
You’re eating your food too fast
When you’re eating your food quickly you’re more likely to swallow excess air, and you’re also probably not chewing your food properly. Digestion actually starts in the mouth, where enzymes in your saliva begin to break down food, but if this doesn’t happen it makes your digestive system work harder later on—which can often lead to bloating and gas.
Practicing mindful eating can help you avoid eating too fast. Try to eat sitting down with no other distractions and focus on each bite. To allow your saliva to begin breaking down food, I recommend chewing each bite around 20 times. This practice also helps you avoid overeating (which can also cause gas) because it allows more time for your brain to register being full.
You may have a food sensitivity or intolerance
While many people have trouble digesting the carbohydrates in cruciferous veggies and legumes, some people may also have a hard time processing other carbohydrates classified as fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAPs), which can lead to gas and bloating.
During digestion, food travels from the mouth to the esophagus, to the stomach, and then to the small intestine, where enzymes further break down food and nutrients are absorbed. Most people naturally produce enough of the right enzymes needed to break down the food they eat, but some people may struggle with eating certain foods that contain FODMAPs or even just eating larger portions of those foods.
Anything that is not broken down by enzymes passes through to the colon, where your gut bacteria feeds off of it, giving off gas in the process. At Parsley Health, my primary care medical practice, many of my patients are able to pinpoint trigger foods by trying an elimination diet.
You should cut your sparkling water or gum chewing habit
You might think you’re doing yourself a favor by chewing sugar-free gum and sipping on a bubbly water instead of soda, but both of these things can make you feel more gassy.
Sugar-free gums are often sweetened with sugar alcohols like aspartame, sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, and maltitol. These are types of FODMAPs that some people can’t tolerate. A medical case study even described two patients who completely resolved their digestive symptoms after quitting their pack-a-day gum chewing.
Drinking sparkling water or any carbonated beverage can also increase gas because you’re literally consuming more gas, leading to that uncomfortable feeling of being full and bloated.
Your digestive system needs some TLC
Sugar, alcohol, NSAIDs like aspirin and ibuprofen, underlying parasites, and even stress can damage the gut lining. This is called leaky gut, or intestinal permeability, which just means that gaps in the tight junctions of the gut lining form, allowing larger substances from the gut to cross into the bloodstream. These substances can create an inflammatory reaction that leads to a range of symptoms, including gassiness.
Luckily, your gut can heal from this if you remove inflammatory inputs (think: sugar, processed foods, vegetable and seed oils, excess alcohol.) Treating underlying infections and reducing stress can also help alleviate chronic gas and bloating. At Parsley Health we frequently prescribe a gut healing protocol, which is an anti-inflammatory plan including supplements such as digestive enzymes, antimicrobial herbs, and L-glutamine to help reboot the gut ecosystem and lower inflammation. We sometimes also prescribe antibiotics or antiparasitic medications based on specific medical stool testing.
You could have a digestive disorder
Excess gas can also be a sign of a deeper digestive issue. Conditions such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), gastroparesis, and more can all make you feel extra gassy.
Another common condition I see in my practice which doctors often misdiagnose is small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO. Reports even show that up to 84 percent of IBS patients actually have SIBO. Things like diet and medications can lead to a disturbance in the gut microbiome where bacteria that usually lives in the colon takes up residence in the small intestine, which can cause symptoms like gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
All of these conditions can be treated and sometimes even reversed. So if you feel like your gas is becoming more frequent or is accompanied by other symptoms, talk to your doctor.
Robin Berzin, MD, is the founder and CEO of Parsley Health, an innovative primary care practice with offices in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Dr. Berzin attended medical school at Columbia University. She is a certified yoga instructor and a meditation teacher.