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What passing gas can say about your health


By Kristen Rogers, CNN

(CNN) — Just as everybody poops, everybody has gas. But the reasons why you break wind can vary, and sometimes it can be cause for concern.

“As a pediatric gastroenterologist, I get asked about this all the time,” said Dr. Mark Corkins, division chief of pediatric gastroenterology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. “There are two sources of ‘gas,’ and not all gas is gas. Part of what we pass is air. We all swallow some air, and some people swallow a lot of air. Now that seems to be odorless.”

Real gas, on the other hand, is primarily the byproduct of the fermentation of food in the colon, said Corkins, who is also a professor of pediatrics. “Our colon has (billions of) bacteria living in it. … If we don’t digest (food), the bacteria will.”

READ MORE: Why does coffee make you poop? Experts explain

When it comes to the amount of space gas takes up, the real deal also tends to be bigger in volume and happens as food is moving through the colon, he added.

Passing gas “between maybe five and 15 times per day … is totally normal,” said Dr. William Chey, the H. Marvin Pollard Professor of Gastroenterology at the University of Michigan. “That’s because people are different in terms of the way that their (gastrointestinal) tract functions, of the microbiome that lives inside the GI tract and of what they eat. All those things are really key factors to determining how often you pass gas, how much you pass gas and what your gas smells like.”

Some odors are more pungent than others for these reasons, experts said, but there aren’t any smells that are red flags.

Gas isn’t as much of an indicator of gut health as bowel movement frequency and texture. But dietary choices can lead to more or less gas, and there are certain points at which gas is worth mentioning to a doctor.

Factors of flatulence

Gut flora are important because they help the body make vitamins and produce some of the short chain fatty acids that feed our colon lining, so a little gas (from those processes) is good, Corkins said. “Otherwise, we’re not feeding our flora, which actually is a symbiotic relationship,” he added.

But what can especially lead to gas, or excessive amounts of it, is eating foods that are more difficult to digest and therefore more likely to ferment, experts said.

“The old classic is beans, and there’s a protein in beans that tends to be difficult to digest,” Corkins said.

Beans are one source of FODMAPs — fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These are short-chain carbohydrates or sugars that, for some people, are poorly absorbed by the small intestine, leading to digestive issues such as gas, cramping, diarrhea, constipation or stomach bloating. Foods high in FODMAPs include certain vegetables, fruits, starches and dairy products such as cauliflower, garlic, apples, peaches, milk, wheat and high fructose corn syrup.

“Many of us unknowingly do eat a lot of FODMAPs, but everyone has a little bit of a different pattern as to how well they can absorb and metabolize these,” said Dr. Rena Yadlapati, professor of medicine in the division of gastroenterology at the University of California, San Diego.

“Some people will, alternatively, have trouble when they eat a lot of red meat,” Chey said. “In fact, (for) pretty much everybody, if you eat enough red meat, you will not be able to properly digest or absorb all of it, and it’ll get down to your colon where it’s fermented to produce gases and chemicals.”

The same thing can happen with excess carbs that aren’t absorbed and end up fermenting in the colon, he added.

“The other thing is making sure that your bowel habits are regular,” Chey said. “Individuals that have constipation are much more prone to getting bloating and flatulence. The reason for that is, if things move very slowly through the GI tract, they have more time to interact with the bacteria in the GI tract, particularly the colon. And that’s going to produce more gas.”

Addressing uncontrollable gas

If your gas is causing you discomfort or interfering with your daily life, you should talk to a doctor, experts said. There are other things you can try.

“We’ll interrogate patients on each of those different factors — diet, microbiome and function of the GI tract — and try to correct some of those things that we think may be contributing to problems with flatulence,” Chey said. “If somebody’s eating a typical Western diet that contains a lot of processed food and carbohydrates, sugars — reducing that and eating a healthier diet can be really helpful.”

A low FODMAP diet “is probably one of the biggest interventions that I’ve talked to patients about,” Yadlapati said.

You should also visit your doctor if you’re having unintentional weight loss, blood in your stool or changes in bowel habits — especially frequent diarrhea — in addition to the excessive flatulence, Chey and Yadlapati said.

“That can be a sign of infection, inflammation or enzyme deficiencies, all of which can be identified and corrected with the help of a health care provider,” Chey said.

As you await your doctor appointment, keep a “gas diary” where you note when you’re having gas and what kinds of physical activities and meals were surrounding that so you can start identifying patterns, Yadlapati said.

A doctor might also advise consumption of over-the-counter remedies, Chey said, such as simethicone, activated charcoal, enteric-coated peppermint oil or probiotics.

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