The inconvenient truth is that gas is a normal part of digestion. In fact, the average person passes gas between 12 and 25 times a day, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
If it's any comfort, just about everyone has experienced having excessive intestinal gas. Whether on a first date or in a quiet theater, the embarrassing belching, bloating and flatulence always seem to strike at the worst times.
Why We Get Gas and Bloating
Gas comes from two sources—air from swallowing and air created by healthy bacteria in the colon, says NIDDK. The bacteria in your colon ferments fiber, starches and some sugars, which produces gaseous compounds in the body, explains the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research. That's why chewing gum as well as eating high-fiber foods like beans, fruits, vegetables and whole grains are known to cause gas.
If you notice that the waistband on your clothes feels tight when you're gassy, it's often because gas can get stuck in your stomach and cause bloating, the Canadian Society points out. This can be uncomfortable or even painful.
"Bloating is a feeling of fullness or distension, which may be caused by gas or by food or stool within the [gastrointestinal] tract," explains Patricia Raymond, MD, a gastroenterologist with Sentara Princess Anne Hospital in Virginia Beach.
Read more: The Normal Time for Food Digestion
What About Belching and Flatulence?
Belching and flatulence are ways that gas is released, says the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG). Belching is another word for burping, which is perfectly normal, especially during or after meals.
However, persistent burping, known as aerophagia, is a disorder in which people swallow too much air. This causes bloating and abdominal distention. A January 2013 article published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology recommends that people with aerophagia avoid carbonated beverages and eat slowly.
Flatulence, the medical term for farting or passing gas, is another normal way humans get rid of gas. Too much flatulence may be related to constipation or a food intolerance, says ACG, so treating the underlying cause can be helpful.
Although not all flatulence is very stinky, sometimes it is, and the human nose is a sleuth. It can detect at least one trillion different odors, according to March 2014 research published in Science. That's why even a small amount of gas can turn heads.
Read more: 7 Weird Facts About Poop
Gas, Farting, Bloating, Oh My!
Can you hold in a fart to avoid embarrassment? Sort of. Though it may be uncomfortable, you can safely hold in the gas in your gut for a little while, according to health care company Geisinger. But if your body is trying to get rid of gas, it will happen eventually.
Although there are several over-the-counter medications to treat gas-related symptoms as they develop, your best bet may be to prevent excessive gas before it happens. Probiotics may help. A study published in the journal PLOS One in September 2017 found that eating probiotics can reduce three types of bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tract. More importantly, reducing one key type reduced farts.
When Is a Gas Problem Serious?
While passing gas is normal, an excessive amount of gas can be a sign of something serious. Lactose or gluten intolerance, for instance, can cause gas or bloating because your digestive system cannot break down and absorb certain foods, notes NIDDK.
Other conditions, such as digestive system disorders, can cause intestinal gas or gas pain. For Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis and celiac disease, excess gas is a common symptom, says NIDDK.
"Become a 'citizen scientist,'" suggests Dr. Raymond. "Determine if the bloating is from [poor] bowel movements, food not moving through the GI tract in a timely way, swallowed air or from gas being produced by bacteria or poorly absorbed food."
If your gas or gas pains are accompanied by these or other problems, head to the doctor. Constipation, diarrhea, weight loss, bloody stools, nausea and vomiting are red flags that should be checked out immediately.
Is This an Emergency?
- Canadian Society of Intestinal Research: “Intestinal Gas Overview”
- PLoS One: “Methanobrevibacter Attenuation via Probiotic Intervention Reduces Flatulence in Adult Human: A Non-randomised Paired-design Clinical Trial of Efficacy”
- Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology: “Management of Belching, Hiccups, and Aerophagia”
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Gas in the Digestive Tract"
- American College of Gastroenterology: "Belching, Bloating, and Flatulence"
- Science: "Humans Can Discriminate More than 1 Trillion Olfactory Stimuli"
- Geisinger: "Stop Holding It in! 4 Bodily Functions You Should Let Out"
- NIDDK: "Digestive Diseases"