Bloating and gas are the worst. When it happens, you have two options: hold it and suffer, or let it all out and make others in the room suffer. There are lots of foods that can cause bloating, so sometimes, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where your painful farts are coming from.
But if you just took down two scoops of rocky road ice cream and thought, "Ugh! Sugar gives me gas," you may be on to something. Some people have trouble digesting certain sugars, like lactose and fructose, or have underlying digestive imbalances from SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). If you're in one of these groups, sugar can leave you with bloating and painful gas, even hours after eating it.
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Some people can't properly digest certain sugars, like lactose and fructose, or sugar alcohols, like sorbitol. If you fall into this category, you'll likely notice that you get bloating and gas after eating them. Certain digestive conditions, like SIBO, also make intolerance to sugar more likely.
What Causes Gas?
Bloating and gas develop in the first place in your large intestine (the colon, specifically), which is home to a large number of harmless bacteria that help you break down the food you eat and keep your entire body healthy.
When certain types of foods, like sugars, starches and fiber, that haven't been completely digested reach the large intestine, the bacteria have a feast. They eat the undigested food particles — a process called fermenting — and create gas in the form of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane as a byproduct.
Having some gas is completely normal. Most people make about 1 to 4 pints (that's 2 to 8 cups) every day and pass that gas (either through burping or farting) around 14 times per day, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. If you have excess bloating and gas, however, that's not normal, but generally a sign that your body isn't agreeing with something you're eating.
Sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint where it's coming from, but an elimination diet can help you identify certain foods that cause bloating. If you suspect that sugar may be the issue, you can start by eliminating sources of it from your diet and go from there. In situations like these, it's often extremely helpful to work closely with a qualified nutritionist who can help guide you through the process.
Sugar Gives Me Gas
According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, most carbohydrate-rich foods can cause gas; and sugar is all carbohydrates. There are some specific sugars, however, that cause more gas than others. They are:
- Fructose - the main sugar in fruit. It's also added to a lot of processed foods in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.
- Lactose - the main sugar in milk. Lactose is especially problematic and gas-forming for people who can't properly digest it (a condition called lactose intolerance).
- Raffinose - a sugar found in beans. Although you probably think of sweet things when you hear the word sugar, beans and some vegetables contain sugars.
- Sorbitol - (technically a sugar alcohol) found in certain fruits (apples, peaches, pears and prunes). It's also used as an alternative sweetener in low-carb foods and candies.
These sugars are likely to cause gas even in someone with a healthy digestive system, but if you have certain conditions that make digesting some of them difficult, your chances of developing bloating and gas get even higher.
Read more: 10 Foods You Don't Realize Are Packed With Sugar
Fructose and Lactose Intolerance
Fructose intolerance and lactose intolerance are two different conditions, but they share similar characteristics. If you're intolerant to a certain type of sugar, or carbohydrate, it means that you can't digest it properly. When this happens, instead of getting broken down during the earlier stages of digestion, these sugars travel almost fully intact to the bacteria in the large intestine and become, basically, a huge Thanksgiving meal.
While the bacteria normally get what's left over from digestion, in this case they get the whole sugar. As they eat — or ferment — it, they produce higher volumes of gas than normal. As this gas builds up in your digestive tract, it can result in uncomfortable bloating.
As the names imply, fructose intolerance means you can't digest fructose (the main sugar in fruits, honey and some vegetables) and lactose intolerance describes an inability to digest lactose (which is found in ice cream, milk, cheese, sour cream, yogurt and other milk products).
According to a January 2014 report in Current Gastroenterology Reports, intolerances to these types of carbohydrates are becoming increasingly common, yet they're often not recognized and poorly managed when they are. The report also notes that the prevalence of fructose intolerance has risen exponentially with the increase in processed fructose consumption (in the form of high-fructose corn syrup).
Another thing to keep in mind is that sucrose, which is the chemical name for regular table sugar or cane sugar, is a complex sugar or disaccharide, which means it's made up of two smaller sugars. In this case, the two sugars are glucose and fructose. If table sugar is giving you problems, it could be a result of the fructose in it.
What About SIBO?
Like fructose intolerance, SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, is also becoming a more significant problem. When someone has SIBO, intestinal bacteria grow and multiply in the small intestine instead of the colon (or large intestine). Although there are some bacteria that live there naturally, SIBO develops when those numbers get out of control.
Your small intestine is where a lot of digestion takes place. Normally, the muscular contractions and digestive juices that get dumped into it work together to break down the food before it moves along. But when there are too many bacteria in the small intestine, they get to munching first. Once the food reaches them, they start breaking it down and produce excess gas that can cause some serious bloating. And like the bacteria in the large intestine, these bacteria prefer carbohydrates like sugar as a food source.
Read more: 7 Signs Your Gut Is Out of Whack
Michael Cline, DO, a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic, says that SIBO isn't a disease itself, but rather a symptom of something else in the gut that's awry. Some possible conditions that can cause SIBO are:
- Acid reflux
- Autoimmune diseases
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Interstitial cystitis
- Celiac disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Crohn's disease
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Cystic fibrosis
If you suspect you have SIBO, you can confirm it, or rule it out, by requesting a breath test from your doctor. If the test confirms SIBO, your doctor will work with you to figure out if you have an unknown underlying condition that's causing it.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Gas in the Digestive Tract"
- International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: "Foods That May Cause Gas"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Understanding SIBO and What It Might Say About Your Gut"
- University of Virginia Nutrition: "Diet for Those With Symptomatic Small Bowel Bacterial Overgrowth"
- Digestive Health Institute: "SIBO Treatment: Antibiotics or Diet?"
- Current Gastroenterology Reports: "Dietary Fructose Intolerance, Fructan Intolerance and FODMAPs"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Symptoms & Causes of Gas in the Digestive Tract"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.