Digestive gas, or flatulence, results from bacterial fermentation of undigested food in your intestine, mostly in the colon. According to Phyllis Balch, author of “Prescription for Herbal Healing,” major changes in diet, such as a sudden increase in fiber, can contribute to flatulence, as can specific foods, such as high-sugar meals or dairy products. Excessive bowel gas presents a two-pronged problem for afflicted individuals. As gas volume increases, it causes abdominal bloating and discomfort. Then, when it is released, flatulence often carries a disagreeable aroma, which leads to social embarrassment.
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Carbohydrates, fats and proteins comprise the nutritional bulk of most meals. These fuel sources are broken down into smaller and smaller fragments by the muscular activity of your stomach and intestine and by the chemical activity of digestive enzymes, which are normally produced in your mouth, stomach and intestine. Invertase, maltase and amylase are carbohydrate-cleaving enzymes, while proteases and lipases break down proteins and fats, respectively.
The majority of bacteria in your intestine reside in your colon. According to a 2000 “Current Issues in Intestinal Microbiology” review, every milliliter of stool in your colon contains approximately one trillion bacteria. These microorganisms survive and multiply by metabolizing the nutrients that pass through your small intestine and arrive in your colon. Bacterial fermentation of these nutrients produces gases such as hydrogen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. The more undigested material that bypasses your small intestine, the greater the bacterial activity in your colon will be.
Digestion begins in your mouth, where salivary enzymes are mixed with your food, and it continues well into your small intestine. Enzymatic activity is necessary for optimal absorption of the nutrients in your food, but the efficiency of this process can be impaired by any number of problems, such as salivary gland disorders, inefficient stomach acid production, pancreatic diseases and bowel conditions such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease. Incomplete enzymatic digestion of foodstuffs or poor intestinal absorption leads to the delivery of a larger volume of nutrients to the bacteria in your lower intestine and colon.
If you have problems with intestinal gas, sometimes a dietary change, such as decreasing your sugar intake, will alleviate the problem. An over-the-counter supplement that contains a good mixture of digestive enzymes could prove beneficial, too. Beano, a well-known remedy for flatulence caused by eating beans, fruit and other carbohydrates, is simply a digestive enzyme called alpha-galactosidase. If you have a digestive or intestinal disorder, such as GERD, celiac disease, chronic pancreatitis or inflammatory bowel disease, talk with your physician before you use digestive enzymes.
- “Prescription for Herbal Healing: Indigestion”; Phyllis A. Balch, CNC; 2002
- “Current Issues in Intestinal Microbiology”; Protein Degradation in the Large Intestine: Relevance to Colorectal Cancer; R. Hughes; 2000
- “American Family Physician”; Effective Management of Flatulence; J. Bailey, et al.; June 2009