Flatulence, also known as "farting" or "passing wind", is the passing of gas from the digestive system out of the back passage.
Flatus is the medical word for gas generated in the intestinal tract. Medical literature describes flatulence as "flatus expelled through the anus".
Flatulence is commonly a source of laughter or embarrassment. Excessive flatulence can cause enormous discomfort and distress, mainly when there are other people around. A bout of flatulence can strike at the most undesirable moments - during a meeting, or even worse in a crowded elevator. In the majority of cases, it is not a serious condition.
Doctors say that in the majority of cases, excessive gas can be controlled with a change of diet and lifestyle.
Passing wind is a normal biological process, like sweating, burping or breathing. Everybody farts, even those who seem not to.The average human passes wind approximately 15 times a day. (NHS, UK)
Why do humans fart?
When we eat, drink or swallow saliva, we also swallow tiny amounts of air. This swallowed air accumulates in the gut. The gas within our digestive system consists mainly of nitrogen and oxygen.
When we digest food, gas, mainly in the form of hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide is released.
As the gas builds up, the body may need to get rid of it - this is done by either burping (belching) or flatulence (farting).
Many times, flatulence occurs and the person is unaware of it - there is no smell, and the amount is tiny. When there is a smell, there are usually small amounts of sulfur gases. If food has not been digested properly, it starts to decompose (rot), releasing sulfur.
Flatulence signs and symptoms
In the majority of cases, flatulence is nothing to worry about; it is a normal human condition which can be treated with self-care techniques.
Flatulence is not usually a reason to go and see your doctor, unless the symptoms are severe, it occurs too frequently and with a foul smell, or there are some additional symptoms which could indicate the presence of an underlying digestive condition.
Below are some signs and symptoms of flatulence when they are seen as troublesome:
- Episodes of flatulence occur frequently, often involuntarily
- When an episode of flatulence occurs, a lot of wind is released
- Farting is consistently foul-smelling
- There may be sharp, jabbing pains (cramps) in the abdomen. Sometimes they may change location, within the abdomen
- A bloated feeling in the abdomen
- A knotted sensation in the abdomen.
What causes flatulence?
Flatulence can have several natural causes, and may also be the consequence of a condition that affects the digestive system.
Intestinal gas consists of:
- Exogenous sources - air that comes in from outside. We swallow it when we eat, drink or swallow saliva. It can occur when we experience nausea or acid reflux and excess saliva is produced.
- Endogenous sources - it is produced within the gut. Gas may be produced as a by-product of digestion of certain foods, or when foods are not digested completely. Anything that causes food not to be digested completely by the stomach and/or small intestine can cause flatulence when it reaches the large intestine.
Foods that cause flatulence are generally those high in certain polysaccharides, particularly oligosaccharides, such as inulin. Inulin belongs to a class of dietary fibers known as fructans.
- Brussels sprouts
- Dairy products
- Sweet potatoes
- Yeast (in baked products, such as bread).
Beans - gas builds up inside the gut. Complex carbohydrates in beans are very difficult for humans to digest. They are digested by microorganisms in the gut - gut flora - methane-producing archaea. When the complex carbohydrates reach the lower intestine, bacteria feed on them, during which they produce gas.
Lactose intolerance - when lactose-containing foods, such as milk are consumed, the bacteria feed on the lactose and produce excessive amounts of gas.
Celiac disease - intolerance to gluten, a protein found in barley, wheat and rye. People with this condition who eat foods containing gluten tend to have flatulence problems.
Artificial sweeteners - sorbitol and mannitol are found in candies, chewing-gums and sugar-free sweet foods. A considerable number of people develop either diarrhea, gas or both when they consume these substances.
Fiber supplements - if you add them too rapidly to your diet, especially the ones containing psyllium, they can cause flatulence.
Carbonated drinks - Fizzy drinks and beer may cause a build-up of gas in the intestinal tract.
Antibiotics - these medications can upset the normal intestinal flora (bacterial flora) in the bowel, which can lead to flatulence.
Laxatives - people who take laxatives regularly and in excess have a high risk of developing flatulence.
Constipation - the feces themselves make it harder to expel excess gas, resulting in further accumulation and discomfort.
Gastroenteritis - an infection of the bowel/stomach. In many cases, there is s a lot of gas build-up.
On the next page we look at diagnosing flatulence and treatment options, which are centered around changing diet and natural remedies.