By Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
Most people consider the release of intestinal gas an embarrassment. Some people even complain about it to their doctors. Part of the problem is that people are unsure how much intestinal gas should pass, if any. When does it signal something wrong with a person's eating habits or state of health?
A bloated feeling or excess gas is occasionally a symptom of serious problems like intestinal obstruction, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, or irritable bowel syndrome. If your flatulence is chronic or increasing, talk to your doctor.
It's normal, however, to pass gas 10 to 20 times a day. Most of the time, this gas comes from swallowed air, incompletely digested food, gut bacteria that produce a lot of gas, or a sluggish bowel that evacuates air slowly. Some people may suffer more from gas as they age because the digestive tract moves more slowly or produces smaller amounts of digestive enzymes. Some people, like those with irritable bowel syndrome, may be sensitive to even small amounts of gas, causing them to feel inaccurately that they produce too much gas.
If your physician determines that your flatulent worries are unrelated to disease, there are several possible reasons for a "gas problem." People may swallow air when they smoke, chew gum, or drink through a straw. Burping often releases it, but air may pass all the way through the digestive tract. Carbonated drinks (like soda and beer), poorly fitted dentures and rapid eating can also be the culprits.
Gas produced within the gut usually comes from various types of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates that are only partially broken down in the upper digestive tract are fermented by bacteria when they reach the lower intestines. For example, some people lack enough of the enzyme that digests lactose, the sugar naturally found in milk. Dairy products like yogurt and cheese, which already have most of their lactose broken down, may not create as much gas for these people.
Special lactose-free milk and lactase tablets are also available. Some research shows that people can often gradually build up to greater lactose tolerance.
People may also experience more gas if they suddenly increase the amount of fiber in their diets. Fiber is found in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and nuts. When you boost your fiber intake, you should do so gradually. Drink plenty of water, too.
Dried beans, often the topic of gas-related jokes, actually can generate extra gas. In addition to fiber, beans contain a sugar called raffinose that may arrive at the end of the digestive tract incompletely digested and ready to ferment. A gas-reducing enzyme supplement available in most supermarkets and pharmacies might be helpful for some people. Digestion problems with beans can also be sometimes avoided by soaking and rinsing them prior to cooking.
Like raffinose, other carbohydrates in cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, onions and even some fruits can be hard to digest for some people. Large amounts of sugar-free candies and other desserts sweetened with sorbitol can also lead to gas, when sorbitol ferments in the lower intestine.
When gas from any of these sources does not pass out of the body easily, it can collect in part of the digestive tract, causing bloating and discomfort. Staying physically active and drinking plenty of fluids helps gas move through the gut. Activity and fluids also shorten the transit time of foods through the digestive tract, so gas is less able to form.
If you experience a constant or severe increase in intestinal gas or bloating, you should talk to your doctor to make sure there is no serious health issue. But remember that some gas is normal. Don't eliminate foods from your diet that have many health benefits, like beans and broccoli, over a little concern or embarrassment with gas.