July 24, 2014
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Digestive Health

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The high price of gas: burps, bloating, and flatulence

Celebrities do it. Babies do it, and so does your boss. Kings, queens, astronauts, your mom, and your grade one teacher do it. You do it. No matter how well-mannered or sophisticated you try to be, there's really no way to avoid belching or breaking wind from time to time.

Our bodies produce gas when we break down food. Our bodies also take in gas when we swallow air, especially when we chew gum, eat food quickly, or smoke. Once inside, it journeys through the digestive system. Your body absorbs most of the gas you swallow or produce and the remaining amount becomes burping, flatulence, or bloating.

"Beg your pardon": the basics of the burp

Whether it's a quiet, hiccup-like burp or a bellowing, rolling belch, burps are all due to the same thing: swallowed air. We swallow some air along with our food whenever we eat and gulp it down. And if we're having carbonated drinks, drinking through a straw, or socializing and chatting during a meal, even more air finds its way into our bellies.

The air that's in the stomach needs to escape, and as it rises up out of our insides, it rumbles and vibrates in the digestive tract, creating the unique and varied noises of a belch. Sometimes, the air can escape through the lower esophageal sphincter while eating, since this opens up while swallowing and releases the air from the stomach.

"Forgive me": the facts about flatulence

If swallowed air doesn't make its way out in the form of a burp, it may migrate from the stomach down into the colon. Here is where a burp can become a fart. Gas in the colon also comes from the natural breakdown of food by bacteria in the colon. The food that is not digested in the stomach and small intestine moves to the large intestine for breakdown; this includes carbohydrates such as undigested fibre from fruits and veggies or lactose after eating dairy products.

And as with a belch, flatulence needs to flee our body. This time it passes through a different sphincter, the anal sphincter, but the concept is the same: Air vibrates as it passes through a tiny, pinched up opening and out comes that familiar whoopee cushion sound of passing gas.

And that odour that most people are afraid of others detecting? That actually comes from the bacteria that break down the food in the colon. This bacteria release small amounts of sulphur-containing gases. Yes, the same "rotten-egg" sulphur of stink bomb fame.

"Time to loosen my belt": the nuts and bolts of the bloat

Bloating isn't something you hear or smell, but you will likely feel it. Bloating is the particular sensation of fullness and swelling caused by gas that builds up in the stomach and intestines. The bloating may cause some abdominal pain or discomfort, especially right after you eat. It can accompany burping or breaking wind or be caused by a medical condition that affects the digestive system. Those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or lactose intolerance may experience frequent bloating.

Though gas is often to blame for that bloated feeling, it can also be caused by fluid retention. Women may experience this type of bloating before their menstrual period, but men can also retain fluid. Eating salty foods can also leave you feeling blown up. As excess sodium waits to leave your body through the kidneys, your body works to dilute it, causing the feeling of water-retention-related bloating.

How to lower the price of gas

You can't get rid of gas completely. You need it for healthy digestion. You can, however, reduce its buildup and its impact.

  • Slow down and savour. Go against the go-go-go of eating on the go. Instead, sit down to eat, take your time, opt for smaller bites, and chew your food thoroughly before you swallow. And though your dinner conversation may be quite sparkling and clever, the less you talk, the less air you're bound to swallow.
     
  • Know your trigger foods. Cruciferous green vegetables, like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower, are great for you. But if your body takes too long to break down and digest these rough, fibrous veggies, you may want to change the amount you eat. Because the amount of gas produced by food varies from person to person, find out which foods affect you the most and limit your intake to what you're comfortable with. Beans, carbonated beverages, and juicy fruits like apples and pears can also cause a gas crisis.
     
  • Figure out fibre. Fibre is a digestion ally but it's also a gas offender. It helps your body break down and digest the food you eat, reducing the risk of constipation which can lead to gas. However, because of the way that soluble fibre (oats, beans, fruits) is digested, it can cause gas on its own. Insoluble fibre, on the other hand, the kind found in vegetables and in wheat bran, produces little gas. Either way, add fibre to your diet gradually. Too much too quickly may lead to gas, abdominal bloating, and diarrhea.
     
  • Cut the cheese. And the milk and yogurt. Dairy products contain lactose, and some people have a hard time digesting this type of sugar. Undigested lactose can ferment in the intestines, a breeding ground for excess gas. Try eating lactose-containing products in small amounts, with other food, to help with digestion. There are also products available at the grocery store or pharmacy that help digest lactose.
     
  • Rule out other potential causes. Excessive gas can be a symptom of a more serious condition, including diverticulitis, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn's disease. Bloating can even be an early indication of ovarian cancer. Certain medications, including some diarrhea medications, can cause bloating, too. It is normal to pass gas 10 to 25 times a day but if you experience prolonged and excessive gas along with other symptoms, or gas is not relieved by diet or lifestyle changes, you should consider seeing the doctor.

Amy Toffelmire


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