Flatulence, or intestinal gas expelled through the rectum, is one of the oldest human complaints. The typical adult passes gas 15 to 20 times a day, an amount deemed normal by gastroenterologists. Despite the occasional embarrassment it may cause, flatulence is rarely a symptom of bowel cancer or any other serious disease.
Symptoms of Flatulence
- Passage of intestinal gas from the rectum
- Abdominal bloating and discomfort
- Belching excessively
What Causes Flatulence?
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. People who have trouble digesting certain foods, such as those with celiac disease or lactose intolerance, are also potential flatulence sufferers. Gas can also be caused by stress and the nervous habit of frequent swallowing. Carbonation in soft drinks and other beverages is also a trigger.
What If You Do Nothing?
Unless the flatulence is excessive, there is no reason to do anything about it. If it does become excessive, it can usually be reduced with basic changes in daily diet.
Home Remedies for Flatulence
Although it is usually not a serious symptom, flatulence can cause embarrassment and discomfort. Here’s how 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. Foods that are highest in complex carbohydrates and produce excess intestinal gas include certain pink beans, soybeans, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. 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 30 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. If you gulp it, you swallow harder-to-digest lumps that remain longer in the intestine, where their residue may ferment.
- 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. Read labels carefully. This artificial sweetener is 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 high-fiber foods into simple sugars that can be comfortably digested. A few small controlled studies found that it reduces flatulence, but the evidence for its effectiveness is not conclusive and it won’t help everyone.
- 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—contrary to what they claim—they can actually absorb gas in humans; they can, however, interfere with the absorption of birth-control pills and other drugs.
- Quit smoking. Smoking increases the amount of air swallowed.
Use the home remedies described above to avoid excessive flatulence.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
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 on the previous pages 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 some digestive disorder is suspected. No treatment is necessary if there is not a gastrointestinal disorder. Your doctor will probably recommend a low-flatulence diet. There are measures you should adopt if lactose intolerance is discovered.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media