About 20 times a day, gas is released through the mouth in the form of burping or from the anus as flatulence(1).
As bacteria breaks down undigested food, they release hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane as a byproduct. Indeed, our bacteria, too, fuel themselves with food in order to survive and proliferate!
Foods high in carbohydrates that contain specific types of sugars are the most likely causes of flatulence. These foods include beans; cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower; fruit; dairy; grains; and some artificial sweeteners like sorbitol.
If you find yourself frequently talking during your meals, your flatulence may be caused by excess air intake during eating or drinking. If this air is not released through burping, it will find its way to the other end of the digestive tract, perhaps causing some discomfort along the way.
Age may also be a factor in contributing to increased gas. As we age, the natural production of digestive enzymes needed to help breakdown our food declines. The slow decline of the body’s ability to produce the enzyme lactase, which is needed to break down the sugar lactose found in dairy products, for example, is why many older adults become lactose intolerant.(2)
Flatulence can also arise in individuals who are constipated or experiencing sluggish peristalsis – the pumping action of the intestines that propels digested food toward the anus. Constipation or sluggish bowels can prolong the fermentation process of foods, leading to increased gas production. When gas becomes excessive, it may lead to bloating, pain, and malaise.
Flatulence is odourous when it contains a combination of sulfur compounds. Consuming foods high in sulfur, particularly meats or sulfur-containing vegetables, often leads to foul-smelling gas. However, every person’s gut is different; sulfurous foods that affect one person may not cause symptoms in another.
Organic causes of odourous gas exist as well. Malabsorption due to a physical or physiological issue in the small intestine can produce foul-smelling gas and stool because undigested food particles make their way through the digestive tract, giving bacteria a feast and, consequently, inducing a large build up of gas.(3)
Persistent excess gas, especially after removing major food offenders from the diet, may be a sign of a more serious underlying health disorder or disease such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and/or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), colon cancer, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Making positive changes to one’s lifestyle usually leads to improvements in bowel function and gas reduction, even when an underlying health disorder or disturbance is a factor.
A first-line approach to flatulence reduction is addressing whether offending foods or lack of nutritious, supportive foods is part of the problem.
Removing offending foods such as easily fermentable carbohydrates (sugars), which include onions, garlic, asparagus, wheat products, beans, sweeteners, and many other vegetables and fruits, may help alleviate flatulence and other associated gastrointestinal symptoms.
Conversely, not enough fruits and vegetables in the diet may be the issue. Those who eat the standard North American diet – foods high in meat, dairy, trans fat, sugar, and refined or processed foods – may not be eating enough fibre.
A diet deficient in fibre may cause chronic constipation and potentially flatulence. Or, perhaps your diet contains adequate fibre, but not enough fluids needed to soften stool and keep it moving through the digestive tract, which may slow transit time and causing increased fermentation and gas along the way.(4)
Regular physical activity can help promote digestive function. Exercise induces the release of stress-reducing hormones like endorphins and enkephalins, and improves blood flow in the body including flow to the digestive system.
Additionally, exercise may lead to positive shifts in gut bacteria composition. Recent research on the microbiota of rugby athletes found their gut bacteria to be more diverse compared to non-athletes, suggesting that moderate physical activity may help with maintaining a healthy digestive tract.(5)
Psychological or social stress may lead to digestive disorders, of which flatulence may be a consequence. When the body undergoes real or perceived stress, digestion takes a hit as internal energy is diverted to other more important areas needed for the “fight-or-flight” response.(6)
Relaxation techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), qigong, and meditation help reduce reactivity to stress and can promote better digestion.
Herbal remedies and nutritive supplements can help support the body’s natural ability to heal.
Since the liver and gallbladder play integral roles in digestion, including bile production and detoxification, supporting these organs may help digestion and absorption. Boldocynara contains herbs that encourage liver and gallbladder function to gently increase bile secretion, improve fat absorption, and reduce flatulence.
Another vital component of the digestive process is the pH balance of the small and large intestines. Molkosan is a lacto-fermented drink rich in L+ lactic acid – a substance found in various foods that is also produced by the human body. Lacto-fermented L+ lactic acid normalizes the acidic/alkaline pH balance of an environment, and may help foster a healthy gut environment necessary for good digestion.
Utilizing anti-spasmodic and carminative agents, such as peppermint, chamomile, or fennel tea are low-cost and easy ways to reduce bloating, intestinal gas, and intestinal spasms.
Natural, organic topical applications can be used on the abdomen to promote blood flow to the area, which may help promote digestion and even stimulate a bowel movement. Castor oil packs are a great topical and natural approach that may help relieve intestinal gas.
When the occasional flatulence turns into chronic, unexplained gas, it is important to see your primary health care provider to rule out a more serious underlying health issue.