There are a lot of ways to describe excessive gas: burping, belching, flatulence, and bloating. While what you call it might not seem to matter, being able to identify where gas starts – and where it ends – can help you treat painful or embarrassing symptoms.
For example, burping and belching usually refer to gas that escapes from the mouth, while flatulence, or farting, is intestinal gas that escapes from the rectum. Bloating is used to describe the sensation of excess stomach gas that has not yet been released.
Some gas after eating – and releasing it through belching or flatulence – is normal. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, most people produce as many as one to four pints of gas a day, which they pass, on average, about 14 times a day.
However, if you’re experiencing painful gas and the embarrassment of chronic and foul smelling flatulence, you can start to play detective and try to eliminate the cause.
Step 1: Avoid Foods Known to Cause Gas
One way to manage flatulence and belching is to eat fewer of the well-known gassy foods. Common culprits include: certain fruits, like apples and pears; vegetables including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and onions; whole grains such as bran; and dairy products like milk, cheese, and ice cream. These items contain fiber, sugars, and starches that don’t digest or absorb easily, eventually causing intestinal gas.
Foods containing sorbitol, a naturally occurring sugar found in fruit, are on some people’s gassy-foods list. Others are bothered by carbonated soft drinks and fruit drinks. If you discover that these foods are causing you excess gas, eliminate them from your diet or eat them in small portions. When it comes to foods to avoid, the key is to be like the Greeks, says Stephen Bickston, MD, professor of internal medicine and director of the inflammatory bowel disease program at Virginia Commonwealth University Health Center in Richmond. “Everything in moderation.”
Keep in mind that almost any food or combination of foods can cause gas. “Certain foods don’t get along together in certain people,” says Donald Novey, MD, an integrative medicine physician with Harrison Medical Center in Poulsbo, Washington. “Some people find they are gassy if they eat fruits with proteins, or if they eat starches and proteins together. It’s personal and requires a little experimentation to find out what the culprits are.” Dr. Novey suggests keeping a food diary and noting when you feel gassy. “If you find you’re gassy after eating a certain food, eliminate it from your diet and see if it helps,” he says.
Cooking may help break down some of the offending ingredients, Bickston says. “But the style of cooking can also decrease healthy chemicals found in vegetables. Boiling seems to break down chlorophyll and other desirable ingredients.” Look for recipes that call for steaming as that seems to be a better cooking method for gassy foods.
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Step 2: Try These Ways to Minimize Gas
Here are six steps you can take to cut down on painful gas:
1 Drink before meals. If you drink liquids with your meals, you lose stomach acids and can’t break down food as well, Novey says. Try drinking about 30 minutes before a meal to help your stomach digest better.
2 Eat and drink slowly. When you eat or drink fast, you can swallow a lot of air, which can cause gas, says Bickston. The simple solution? Slow down when you eat. If you have dentures, check with your dentist to be sure they fit properly so you’re not gasping air while eating.
3 Take over-the-counter digestive aids. Digestive enzymes are available as over-the-counter supplements. “I recommend going to the health-food store and getting a digestive enzyme,” says Novey. “You can take one or two. You will know very rapidly – within a few weeks if it makes a difference.” However, antacids won’t do much for excessive gas, says Bickston. Another over-the-counter digestive aid, Beano, contains an enzyme that can allow the body to digest the sugar in beans and many vegetables. Add five drops of the liquid form or swallow one Beano tablet per half-cup serving of food before eating. Heating degrades the enzyme in Beano, so adding it to foods while cooking reduces its effectiveness. Beano will not help if excessive gas is caused by fiber or lactose.
4 Try activated charcoal. Activated charcoal has been known to reduce and treat excess gas and bloating. Unlike the charcoal you find in your grill or fireplace, activated charcoal undergoes a special treatment that makes it safe for human consumption. Once you take activated charcoal (via liquid or pill), it attaches to fluid in your gut, reducing gas and bloating and creating firmer stools.
5 Don’t fill up on air. Habits like smoking, chewing gum, and drinking through a straw may cause your stomach to fill with air, leading to gas.
6 Avoid artificial sweeteners. Sorbitol and related sugar alcohols used in many sugar-free versions of foods can also aggravate gas. “Sorbitol is the first ingredient in every brand of sugar-free gum I’ve found at local grocery stores,” says Bickston. “One to two sticks is akin to eating a prune.” However, the sugar substitutes that are found at a typical coffee stand or in popular soft drinks are not the kind that cause gas. The various packet sweeteners – yellow (sucralose), pink (saccharine), and blue (aspartame) – are not associated with gas or laxative effects.
When Gas Is a Symptom of Something Else
If your excessive gas is persistent or severe, consult your doctor – it could be a sign of a more serious digestive condition, such as:
Lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and milk products. “I test with a milk challenge,” says Bickston. “The patient drinks a pint or two of milk – it can be any percent fat. What follows tells the patients whether they should limit their milk intake.” If avoiding milk reduces your symptoms you may be lactose intolerant.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). “Patients who meet the diagnostic checklist for irritable bowel syndrome suffer more pain at the lower levels of abdominal cavity,” he says.
Colon cancer. “Excess gas is rarely the presenting symptom for patients with colon cancer,” Bickston notes. “But it does trigger my reflex to remind patients to get screened for colorectal cancer.”
Upper gastrointestinal disorders. Occasional belching is normal, but frequent belching may be a sign of an upper gastrointestinal disorder. These include peptic ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or gastroparesis, also called delayed gastric emptying.
Also, warns Bickston, if you have had abdominal surgery, a hernia, or significant weight loss or weight gain, never dismiss your gas-like symptoms as normal. Get them checked out.
As annoying as it might be, some gas is a natural by-product of the body’s digestive system. But if your gas is excessive, painful, or chronic, talk to your doctor about possible causes and remedies.