BY: Wendy Korn Heppt
Burping and farting. Babies love to do it; most kids think it’s hilarious. But for adults, gas is no joke. Nevertheless, “gas is a normal function, and everybody has it,” says Dr. M. Michael Wolfe, a gastroenterologist and a professor at Case Western Reserve University and chair of the department of medicine at Metrohealth Medical Center. Fortunately, if you’ve got gas, there are real steps you can take to prevent -- and treat -- it.
Intestinal gas has two causes:
- Swallowing too much air. This can happen if you’re nervous, or if you eat or drink too fast. Also, people with chronic heartburn or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) may swallow repeatedly in response to irritation in the esophagus caused by acid reflux. This, in turn, can lead to excess air.
- Eating certain carbohydrates. Some carbohydrates can’t be fully digested by your body. “In that case, bacteria in the gut break down the food, producing gas, which eventually exits the body from above or below,” explains Wolfe.
Whether gas makes you physically uncomfortable (with bloating or cramping) or merely embarrassed, simple lifestyle changes can help minimize it:
Don’t gobble or guzzle. “You take in less air when you eat and drink slowly, and refrain from talking while doing so,” says Wolfe. “I advise my patients to put down the fork or spoon in between bites and then chew and swallow.”
Identify your problem foods. Not all gassy foods affect all people, and since some of the gassiest foods are also the healthiest, you don’t want to eliminate them unless you have to. To help pinpoint your personal triggers, record everything you eat for a few days, keeping track of when gas occurs and whether the problem goes away if you stop eating a suspect food. Common culprits to watch out for include:
- Legumes (beans, lentils)
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower)
- Milk (cheese, ice cream and other milk products)
- Sorbitol and other sugar alcohols
- Carbonated beverages
Try a digestive enzyme. If beans and other gassy plant foods are a problem, try a digestive supplement that contains alpha-galactosidase. This natural enzyme “helps your body break down the fibrous structure, which makes certain plant foods difficult to digest,” explains Wolfe.
Be wary of dairy. When we’re babies, our bodies produce plenty of lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose. But after we’re weaned, our bodies produce less and less lactase -- and our ability to digest lactose is diminished or even lost. “In that case, bacteria in your intestine do it for you, producing excess gas in the process," explains Wolfe. To figure out if lactose is a problem for you, try eliminating all dairy for a week. If gas goes away, then see if you can tolerate dairy in smaller doses. If not, switch to lactose-free products or take lactase enzyme supplements, which can help you break down lactose with less or no discomfort.
Get the gas out. For a quick fix, Wolfe often recommends over-the-counter products containing simethicone, which works by breaking up gas bubbles so they’re easier to pass. To reduce the odor associated with gas, a dose of bismuth subsalicylate may help.
Try peppermint or fennel. Sipping peppermint tea or chewing fennel seeds can help decrease bloating after large meals. However, peppermint can also trigger heartburn in some people, so avoid it if acid reflux is a problem for you.
Keep your cool. Tension and anxiety can cause you to swallow air, and some people gulp air as a nervous habit. If you’re feeling stressed, stop and take a few slow, calming breaths.
See your doctor. If all else fails, consult your doctor to rule out gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heartburn or GERD, which can sometimes make gas especially problematic -- and vice versa.
“Causes of excess gas, the level of discomfort, and remedies can be different for everyone,” says Wolfe. “Identifying your triggers and finding a solution really can help.”
Wendy Korn Heppt is a New York City-based health and fitness writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Health online, Prevention, Self, Consumer Reports, Newsday and NY Daily News. Wendy writes frequently for Live Right Live Well.