Go on, admit it: When you hear someone else pass gas, only your sense of decorum keeps you from laughing out loud. But flatulence isn’t nearly as funny when it emanates from you, especially in social situations.
Though sometimes unpredictable, flatulence is an inevitable by-product of the digestive process.
Every day, 1 to 5 ounces of undigested carbohydrates pass into your small intestine in little lumps. The lumps slowly make their way into your colon, where they’re broken down by bacteria. This process, called fermentation, produces a biochemical soup composed of hydrogen and methane as well as several foul-smelling trace gases. Collectively, these compounds are known as flatus. The flatus travels out of the colon toward the nearest exit, where it’s expelled (much to your chagrin).
A number of factors can influence the frequency and severity of flatulence, including a high-carbohydrate diet. Beans and other legumes, which contain specific kinds of carbohydrates called oligosaccharides, are the most notorious gas-producers. Some people get gassy as well when they eat broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, onions, radishes, fruits, bagels, pretzels, or anything made with fruit sugar (fructose) or the artificial sweetener sorbitol.
Flatulence may also be related to lactose intolerance, certain medications, or a number of digestive problems. In addition, you may have more flatulence just because you’re eating more healthfully. A diet that favors fiber-rich grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables over meats and other fatty foods is naturally gas-producing. “The health experts all agree: Eat less fat and more fiber,” say pharmacists Joe Graedon and Teresa Graedon, Ph.D., coauthors at http://www.howtogetrid.org. “They’re right, but your digestive tract pays a penalty. Plain and simple, fiber makes you fart.”
Of course, knowing that everyone gets flatulence now and then is of little consolation when you’re the one tooting the old horn. Fortunately, you can take steps to minimize the number of gaseous episodes that you experience. Here’s what the experts recommend.
Soak beans before cooking. Yes, beans cause flatulence. But they’re also inexpensive sources of high-quality protein, fiber, and other nutrients. So instead of avoiding them, soak them in water before cooking them, suggests Anne Simons, M.D. Soaking removes some of those gas-causing oligosaccharides.
Put the beans in a pot of water and allow them to sit overnight. Then drain off the soaking water and replace it with fresh water. Cook the beans thoroughly before serving.
Savor every morsel. When you eat fast, you swallow your food in large lumps. These lumps are more likely to enter your small intestine undigested, increasing the odds of flatulence. So eat slowly and chew every bite thoroughly.
Disregard dairy. Try eliminating milk and other dairy products for a week, advises Alan P. Brauer, M.D. If you notice any improvement in your symptoms, you may well be lactose-intolerant. In that case, you need to see your doctor for proper diagnosis.
Take copious notes. If you’re particularly prone to gassiness, keep a food diary in which you write down what you eat and when you experience symptoms. Review your notes to identify the foods that you think may be causing problems. Then give up those foods for a week and notice whether your symptoms improve. If they do, you can make better-informed decisions about what not to eat when.
Befriend the good bugs. To prevent gaseous episodes, try daily supplementation with acidophilus bacteria, suggests Andrew T. Weil, M.D., director of the program in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson. Acidophilus bacteria are friendly microorganisms that reside in your intestines and support good digestion. Look for yogurt containing live culture bacteria (the label will tell you). Or buy acidophilus powder-it’s sold in health food stores-and follow the package directions for proper dosage.
See what’s going on in your gut. Research by Michael D. Gershon, M.D., professor and chairperson in the department of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, has shown that the digestive tract is lined with an enormous number of nerve cells. These cells are responsible for the “butterflies” that you feel when you’re anxious. They also cause abdominal spasms that contribute to the explosive release of gas.
You can reduce abdominal spasms-and control the noisiness of flatulence-by practicing relaxation techniques, says Martin L. Rossman, M.D.
He has produced visualization audiotapes that might help soothe your abdominal spasms. Whether you choose visualization or another relaxation technique, Dr. Rossman adds, regular practice is key to controlling flatulence. “Make deep relaxation part of your daily life,” he says.
Pass the peppermint. “Peppermint is a very specific remedy for relief of flatulence;” notes Stephen Holt, M.D., professor of medicine at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Studies dating back as far as the 1920s have shown that peppermint helps soothe gastrointestinal spasms, which contribute to explosive flatulence. The herb also has anti-foaming properties: It breaks down large gas bubbles into smaller ones, which pass more easily and cause less abdominal distress.
Peppermint is most effective when taken in tincture form. James A. Duke, Ph.D., suggests adding 1 to 2 teaspoons of tincture to 1 cup of boiled water. Allow to steep for 10 minutes, then drink up. You can buy peppermint tincture in health food stores.
Toot less with an herbal tea. In addition to peppermint, Dr. Duke recommends allspice, caraway, chamomile, cloves, dill, fennel, ginger, sage, and thyme. All of these herbs contain compounds that relax the smooth muscle of the digestive tract. In this way, they discourage spasms that contribute to explosive flatulence.
To make a tea from any of these herbs, add 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried herb to 1 cup of boiled water. Allow to steep for 10 minutes, then strain out the herb and drink.
Make a beeline for Beano. Beano supplies alpha-galactosidase, the enzyme that your stomach needs to digest the carbohydrates in beans and other legumes. With this over-the-counter product, you can enjoy bean-laden dishes without fear of repercussions. Follow the directions on the bottle.
Other Good Choices
Try a microdose medicine. A number of homeopathic medicines effectively relieve flatulence, according to homeopath Dana Ullman. Which remedy he prescribes depends on a client’s individual symptoms. But he most often recommends Bryonia, Carbovegetabilis, Nuxvomica, or Pulsatilla.
Free your qi. Practitioners of Chinese medicine view flatulence as a stagnation of qi brought on by Heat in the intestines, says Efrem Korngold, O.M.D.,L.Ac. To stimulate the flow of qi, Dr. Korngold often recommends gentle, mildly spicy foods and herbs such as radishes, citrus fruits and peels, cardamom, and licorice. He may also prescribe Curing Pills, an over-the-counter Chinese medicine made from 15 different herbs.
Apply pressure to ease pressure. Acupressure can help quiet flatulence, according to Michael Reed Gach, founder and director of the Acupressure Institute. He suggests using your fingertips to apply steady, penetrating pressure to each of the following points for 3 minutes.
- Conception Vessel 6, located three finger-widths directly below your navel
- Conception Vessel 12, located halfway between the end of your breastbone and your navel on the midline of your abdomen (do not stimulate this point if you’ve just eaten or if you’re a woman who’s pregnant)
- Large Intestine 11, located at the Outer end of your elbow crease on the thumb side
If flatulence persists, consider consulting an acupuncturist. Needle stimulation of these points often helps when finger pressure doesn’t.
Go gaga for ginger. Ayurvedic physicians rely on ginger to treat an array of digestive problems, including flatulence. Vasant Lad, B.A.M.S.,M.A.Sc., director of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, recommends taking 1 teaspoon of freshly grated gingerroot in 1 teaspoon of lime juice after every meal.
If your flatulence is accompanied by bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps, think back over the past 6 months. Did you do any traveling in that time period, especially to a foreign country or a remote American locale? If so, you may have picked up intestinal parasites, Dr. Brauer says. Ask your doctor to test you for them.