When you think about all the chemical reactions that are taking place in our bodies as we turn food into energy, it is no wonder that there are multiple waste products produced. We have been created with quite a well-developed manufacturing plant inside of us. One of these by-products is gas, and it is designed to be eliminated mainly through passing gas. If we have excess gas that cannot be efficiently expelled from the body, it can become a problem. Let’s look more into this gaseous issue that is common to every one of us, to one degree or another.
What is Gas?
Gas, officially known as flatus, is a natural byproduct of the digestive process. It occurs when bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract begin to break down the food we have eaten. Air can also accumulate in the intestinal tract from swallowing or from disorders that prevent the proper and timely digestion of food.
Passing gas, or flatulence, can be embarrassing if it happens at the wrong time, but it is a completely normal occurrence that happens to everyone. Most healthy people pass gas about twelve to twenty times a day, and the average volume is about 1200cc per person on a daily basis. Just in case you were wondering, gastrointestinal gas is a combination of carbon dioxide, hydrogen, nitrogen, and methane. Excessive gas or painful symptoms when gas is present may indicate an illness or condition that should be looked into further. When there is excess air in the intestinal tract, it may also be expelled from the body by burping or belching.
What Are the Symptoms of Gas?
The most common symptoms of excess gas or air in your system include:
- Passing gas, either intentionally or unintentionally.
- Burping or belching.
- Abdominal bloating, technically known as distention.
- Abdominal cramping. In babies, this is known as colic.
- Sharp jabbing pains in the abdomen: These may occur intermittently, and can be quite intense. Sometimes the pain will be in the rectal area, or it can be felt in various parts of the stomach area, and can move about from place to place rather quickly. At times, depending on location, it may seem like heart pain, or the pain of gallstones or appendicitis.
What Causes Gas?
The majority of gas is the result of the fermentation of carbohydrates in the colon that are not digested in the small intestine. Foods that are high in fiber, while very good for us, also tend to cause a lot of gas.
Another common way that excess air enters our intestinal tract is through swallowing. Every time we eat or drink something, we also swallow air. Eating too fast, drinking through a straw, not chewing your food well, chewing gum, or smoking cigarettes also introduces air into your abdominal area. Drinking carbonated beverages such as soda pop or beer will also increase the amount of gas in your system.
As far as foods go, some of the worst culprits when it comes to gas are some of the best foods for us, such as raw fruits and vegetables and alternative sources of protein like beans. So we are left with a dilemma: eat well, but suffer from excess gas. I recommend eating healthily and we will talk about some proactive ways to deal with the gas problem. One thing to keep in mind is that with many folks, as the body gets used to a steady diet of raw high fiber foods, it will begin to tolerate them better and the problems with gas will decrease.
Foods affect people in different ways. If you have a gas problem, try to identify the ones that give you the most trouble. Some of the most common offenders when it comes to gas-producing foods are:
- Brussels sprouts
- Whole grain breads, muffins, and cereals
- Carbonated drinks
- Ice cream
- Sugar-free candy and gum
Other common causes for gas include:
- Another health condition: Excess gas can indicate other chronic conditions such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, or diverticulitis.
- Food Intolerances: The most common food intolerances are lactose, a sugar found in dairy products, and gluten, a protein found in wheat and some other grains. If you are not able to process and digest these substances, you are said to be “intolerant” to them. Intolerance towards these, or any other foods, can result in gas, bloating, diarrhea, and other intestinal disturbances.
- Antibiotics: Antibiotics are great at fighting certain infections, but they can wreak havoc with your intestinal tract. They can’t distinguish between the infectious bacteria and the “good” bacteria in your gut, so they will often throw the natural balance out of whack and adversely affect the digestion process. This can cause excess gas.
- Other medications: There are many drugs, prescription and over-the-counter, that can cause gas. If you read the list of side effects listed with most drugs, gas is usually listed as a possibility.
- Constipation: If you are plugged up and have difficulty moving your bowels, it makes it harder to expel excess gas. This can lead to bloating and discomfort.
- Artificial sweeteners: Sorbitol and mannitol are artificial sweeteners that are often used in sugar free gum, candies, and other foods. Many people have a hard time digesting them, and the result can be gas as well as diarrhea for some folks.
- Stress: Emotional and/or physical stress can also upset your intestinal tract, and result in excess gas. The ancients used to say that the center of our being is in our “bowels” or “gut” as we might call it today. It is certainly true that our state of mind can and does have a definite impact on how our “innards” perform.
How Can Excess Gas Be Treated or Prevented?
The first thing you should do is rule out any other serious health problems that may be causing the problem. Bowel disorders can occasionally be dangerous conditions. An example would be an obstructed bowel. This can be life threatening. A good way to determine if your bloated abdomen is due to excess gas is to have your health care provider tap on your abdomen and listen with a stethoscope. If she hears a hollow sound, it usually indicates trapped gas. (You can also do this yourself, if you know where to tap and listen). Once any complications have been ruled out, there are many practical steps that can be taken to improve your gas problem. Some suggestions include:
- Dietary changes: This is a good place to start, as most gas problems are related to diet. Try eliminating dairy and gluten first, and take note of the results. Since so many are intolerant of these foods, there is a good chance this may help the problem. Remember what we said above, that whole raw foods produce the most gas. I do not recommend switching to prepared, over cooked foods just to avoid gas. That is dietary suicide. What you may want to do is experiment with different whole foods. Perhaps you may tolerate a certain kind of bean or vegetable better than other types. Eating whole foods also means staying away from simple carbohydrates such as most pasta (unless its whole grain) and most breads, unless they are truly whole grain as well. Simple carbs will also produce a lot of gas. Another trick is to eat protein and carbohydrates separately. Combining them leads to excess gas.
- Avoid fried foods: If you are eating well, you are already doing this. Fried, fatty foods are not your friend in any way, shape, or form. One of the many bad side effects of fried foods is that they slow down the digestive process and lead to excess gas.
- Go slow with changes: If you are changing your diet, such as by disciplining yourself to eat “live” foods that are raw and whole, eat small amounts in a sitting, and allow your body to get used to the changes and adjust.
- Change your dining habits: Many of us Americans are so used to wolfing our food, that we have forgotten (or maybe never learned) that eating smaller amounts of food in a slow, deliberate manner, is much better for digestion and for our bodies as a whole. It is much better to eat 6 small meals per day than 2 or 3 large ones. Learn to relax and chew your food well between every bite. Sometimes it helps to set your fork down between every bite until you have reprogrammed yourself. The American way is not the only way. If you ever go to France, for example, you will see that they make dining an event, sometimes taking hours to eat a single meal. Try to slow down and enjoy the moment.
- Drink slowly: Gulping beverages can also introduce excess air into your intestinal tract and create a gas problem as well. Sip, don’t guzzle.
- Don’t smoke: There are a million outstanding reasons why you shouldn’t smoke, and gas is one of them. Smoking, by its very nature, tends to make any gas problem you might have worse.
- Avoid alcohol: The digestion of alcoholic beverages encourages excess gas, especially if they are carbonated.
- Dentures: If you wear dentures and they do not fight tightly, you are taking in extra air every time you eat and drink.
- Exercise: One of the best ways you can help your digestion and avoid gas is to take a walk after eating. The worst thing you can do is to lie down, especially after a large meal.
- Peppermint tea: A cup of peppermint tea is a wonderful tonic after dining. It soothes the stomach, and helps alleviate gas as well.
Stomach gas and flatulence to the excess is predominantly a symptom of our modern fast food, rat-race culture that has us hurtling through life at break neck speed. Eating was never meant to be squeezed into a few spare minutes between our busy schedules. Feeding ourselves should be a pleasure to be enjoyed. Try slowing down and I believe you will grow to cherish meal times and experience less of a gas problem to boot.