Coping with Intestinal Gas

Got gas? Get the facts about gas, and advice for handling it.

Embarrassed in front of friends at a restaurant

Flatulence is intestinal gas from the rectum; it is both normal and necessary. While everyone does it, discussing it is socially taboo, and parents teach kids from an early age to pass gas in private. Many people find flatulence funny, but excess gas is no joking matter; holding it in can cause stomach cramps, abdominal pain, dizziness and headaches. Along with physical symptoms, many people with excess gas socially isolate themselves, fearing they will accidently release gas in front of others.

Facts About Gas

• Healthy people pass gas 10 to 22 times each day; men and women pass gas about the same number of times each day.

• Intestinal gas is a mixture of five gases, but only 1 percent of the gas is responsible for odors. There is no relationship between a gas's odor and its sound.

• Men produce more gas than women because males are generally larger. A man's flatulence measures about one half cup per incident; a woman's measures about one third cup.

• Women produce more foul-smelling gas than men.

• Gas is released in 1 of 3 ways: burping, from the rectum or by being absorbed into the blood stream and exhaled from the lungs.

Causes of Gas

There are two main causes of intestinal gas: swallowing air and bacteria that digest food. Most people are surprised to learn we swallow air. We automatically swallow up to two quarts of air each day, usually while eating and drinking. A lot of air is also swallowed when we chew gum or drink with a straw. More than one cup of air is swallowed when we drink a full glass of water. Eating fast, eating too much or feeling stressed increases the amount of air we swallow. We burp about 50 percent of this air, and the rest passes through the intestines and is released from the rectum.

Our bodies cannot fully digest certain sugars and carbohydrates. As bacteria in the colon digest these foods, they release gas. Beans are a well-known example of a food that challenges our digestion; they are notorious gas producers. Some of our healthiest foods (fruits, vegetables, beans and grains) are also some of the most gas producing. In addition, up to 30 percent of adults have problems digesting a type of sugar called lactose that's found in milk and other dairy products. Bacteria in the colon likewise feed on undigested lactose, producing gas.

Medications, such as antibiotics, can change the number or types of bacteria in our bodies, which may lead to excess gas. More than 75 medications are linked to excess gas, including commonly used over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, antidepressants, calcium supplements, cholesterol-lowering drugs and hormone replacement medications.

What Can I Do?

Many people mistakenly believe they produce excess gas when in fact they do not. The first step is to keep a diary for two weeks, noting the number of times you pass gas each day. If you have a bed partner, they can tell you if you pass gas during sleep. When we are sleeping, we pass gas produced by bacteria, but not gas from swallowed air. If your daily number is lower than 20, then you have normal gas production. If you are producing excess gas, there are several things that might help:

• Decrease your intake of even a few gas-producing foods. While this may help, most people are more likely to live with excess gas than adhere to strict diets. Meats, fish, nuts and berries don't produce much gas.

• Avoid the artificial sweeteners sorbitol and mannitol, which are found in diet and sugar-free foods. These can produce excess gas.

• Because you may have a problem digesting lactose and not know it, consider a lactose-free diet for two weeks and see if it makes a difference. You don't have to eliminate all dairy products; look for lactose-free labels.

• Several over-the-counter products exist, including Beano, lactase supplements (such as Lactaid), simethicone (such as Gas-X and Mylanta) and activated charcoal tablets. Some agents target stomach gas and others target gas from foods. Each agent works differently, and your local pharmacist can recommend one that might help you.