It’s Normal to Pass Gas But…
Hippocrates has been quoted as having said, “Passing gas is necessary to well-being.” What was true in ancient Greece still holds true today. Flatulence — the passage of intestinal gas — is a normal function of the human body, something each of us does between 10 and 20 times daily. But that doesn’t make it any less awkward when it happens in the wrong place at the wrong time.
According to Daily Health News contributing medical editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, gas is a natural byproduct that develops when normal, beneficial bacteria in the intestines act to break down undigested food particles. This gas is eventually released through the rectum, and most often it is odorless (or at least mild) and quiet. That’s of little comfort, however, to those who suffer from chronic, noxious gas, which is almost inevitably accompanied by chronic social embarrassment. Dr. Rubman and I had a candid conversation about the causes of gas and how to control it.
PREVENTING GAS FUMES
The character of gas depends on what you eat and how you eat it, says Dr. Rubman, and it’s not all the same. The inoffensive kind of harmless, odorless gas contains hydrogen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, oxygen and sometimes methane. The more embarrassing variety contains byproducts of digestion, such as sulfur. Questions to ask yourself if you suffer from the embarrassing kind of intestinal gas are…
- Are you making unhealthy food choices? Foods that contain carbohydrates (especially sugar, white flour products and white potatoes) are most likely to fuel bacteria and cause fermentation.
- Did you eat too much or too fast? These bad habits pose a challenge to the digestive tract, primarily because digestion is incomplete. “The less you chew your food, the greater likelihood of intestinal gas,” says Dr. Rubman.
- Did you consume too much liquid with your food? Fluids, even water, dilute hydrochloric acid in the stomach making it less likely your food is thoroughly digested.
HOW TO TAKE A PASS ON GAS
I asked Dr. Rubman about popular over-the-counter remedies for flatulence, such as Beano and charcoal pills. He told me that Beano contains an enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates, while charcoal is widely known to absorb odors and toxins, including poisons, drugs and other undesirable substances that don’t really belong in your body. He told me that while antidotes like these may temporarily correct the problem, products like Beano, charcoal and the simethicone surfactant-containing Gas-X fail to address the underlying cause of most flatulence — diet. Fortunately, Dr. Rubman has a number of safe and natural tips for healthier eating. These include…
- Limit certain carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are more apt to cause gas than proteins or fats since they are so often incompletely digested, leading to gas production down below. Among the biggest culprits are foods that contain simple sugars such as fructose, high-fructose corn syrup or the sugar alcohol sorbitol. Soft drinks, fruit drinks, artificially sweetened diet products and sugar-laden processed foods in general cause gas because the intestine is not designed to absorb large quantities of these substances, which feed intestinal flora and ferment, eventually producing gas. Dr. Rubman recommends instead opting for healthful carbs — whole vegetables and fruits that are easier to digest and overall a healthier choice. Even though they too may cause gas, usually it’s to a lesser degree and their benefits clearly outweigh any downside.
- Be careful about food combinations. It’s a mistake to mix carbs like French fries or mashed potatoes with protein such as in cheeseburgers and steaks. While these combos may sound great together on the menu, in reality they are difficult for the body to digest and likely to cause digestive upsets such as gas. Desserts — even fruit, which you might ordinarily view as a healthy choice — can likewise cause problems when eaten after protein-rich meals. Protein takes a long time for the body to digest, causing sugars eaten afterward to remain in the digestive tract longer, fermenting and causing malodorous gas. To stave off flatulence, it’s best to eat fruit as a snack on its own or else 30 minutes before a meal or an hour or two afterward.
- Don’t spill the beans. “Blazing Saddles” anyone? Notorious for causing gas, as in the memorable scene in the Mel Brooks film, beans contain the sugar raffinose. They are nonetheless packed with vital nutrients and fiber, and therefore deserve a place in your diet. The secret with dried hard beans is proper preparation. You can reduce the flatulent effect of these by washing them well and soaking them overnight in cold water. Then dispose of the water and cook them thoroughly (according to Dr. Rubman, do so until they “pop in your mouth like ripe grapes”) the following day, in enough fresh water to cover. Canned beans have already been soaked and cooked, but they aren’t as nutrient-rich as those you prepare yourself.
- Take a digestive enzyme. In Dr. Rubman’s view, virtually everyone over 30 can benefit from taking a digestive enzyme with most meals. He recommends products such as DuoZyme by Karuna and Gastri-Gest by Priority One. For optimal digestion, also eat slowly, limit fluids with meals, chew thoroughly (he advises 30 chews per bite) and resist the temptation to overeat. Gulping down food on the run — especially too much of it — can lead to gas and other digestive woes.
CHRONIC FLATULENCE: NOT A LAUGHING MATTER
Passing gas may be good for a laugh — especially among schoolchildren — but truthfully, chronic flatulence is no laughing matter. Flatulence can be a sign of irritable bowel syndrome or other bigger issues. If you suffer from persistent, noxious flatulence (especially when the odor extends to the breath, which happens in severe cases), schedule a visit with a physician specializing in digestion and GI diseases who can evaluate your problem and help you get your digestive tract back on the right track.