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Don’t get the wind up about flatulence

December 2011 

flatulenceChristmas is here and at this time of year, with its dark evenings, festivities and celebrations, we often eat and drink more than we are used to. Most people will know the real discomfort from a tight, over extended stomach.

But one aspect which is not often talked about is flatulence - the passing of gas from the digestive system out of the back passage. There are lots of jokes about it of course, but flatulence can be very embarrassing as well as being uncomfortable. Yet it is a normal biological process.

When we eat or drink, or even swallow saliva, we also take in small amounts of air made up of nitrogen and oxygen. The amount can be tiny with each swallow, but it builds up and usually collects in the digestive system. Also, when food is digested, gas is often released from the process, usually in the form of hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide.

Obviously this gas has to go somewhere and the two main exits are through our mouth (by belching or burping) or through the anal passage. Smell is not always associated with these gasses, but can be bad if elements of sulphur gas are included. Sulphur gas mainly develops when food has not been properly digested and has started to decompose.

Excessive flatulence needs to be looked at so the cause can be established. For instance, it could be due to poor eating habits - swallowing large chunks of food rather than slow careful chewing will result in more air being swallowed. Chewing gum or even sucking on pen tops can result in more air being taken in; fizzy drinks can increased the levels of carbon dioxide in your stomach.

But rather than how you eat, it is more likely to be the food you eat that causes problems. Western diets include a lot of carbohydrates made up of long chains of sugar molecules, and some of these are not digested in the stomach. Instead they are absorbed by the intestines and pass down into the colon. Here, the bacteria in the colon breaks down the carbohydrates and this process produces gas.

To reduce this, it is worth looking at the types of food that contain higher levels of unabsorbable carbohydrates. These include beans, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage and the pulses; prunes, apples and raisins also come under this category, so watching the levels of these foods you eat might help to cure excess flatulence.

But there are also a range of health conditions that can cause flatulence. Constipation and irritable bowel syndrome are well recognised; coeliac disease and gastroenteritis are also recognised causes.

Lactose intolerance can sometimes be an underlying cause of flatulence as the body is unable to break down the natural sugar found in milk and dairy products which can result in excess gas and there are other digestive connected problems which have similar effect.

If a change in your eating habits or food does not produce good results, then there are several over the counter remedies for temporary relief. However, if you suffer from excessive flatulence for a prolonged period of time, then it is important to seek medical help. While for some it can be a laughing matter, it can also indicate underlying health problems which may need proper investigation and treatment.


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