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Stomach Gas

Everyone has gas and eliminates it by burping or passing it through the rectum. However, many people think they have too much gas when they really have normal amounts. Most people produce about 1 to 3 pints a day and pass gas about 14 times a day. Excessive gas is called flatulence.

Gas is made primarily of odorless vapors--carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and sometimes methane. The unpleasant, smelly odor of gas comes from bacteria in the large intestine that release small amounts of gases that contain sulfur.

Although having gas is common, it can be uncomfortable and embarrassing. Understanding the causes, ways to reduce symptoms, and treatment will help most people find relief.

Personal story about problems with smelly, embarassing gas.

Gas Statistics:

According to the National Institute of Health, most people produce about 1 to 3 pints of gas in a day, and pass gas about 14 times in 24 hours.

What causes gas?

Gas in the digestive tract ( the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine) comes from two sources:

  • swallowed air
  • normal breakdown of certain undigested foods by harmless bacteria naturally present in the large intestine (colon)

Swallowed Air

Air swallowing (aerophagia) is a common cause of gas in the stomach. Everyone swallows small amounts of air when eating and drinking. However, eating or drinking rapidly, chewing gum, smoking, or wearing loose dentures can cause some people to take in more air.

Burping, or belching, is the way most swallowed air--which contains nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide--leaves the stomach. The remaining gas moves into the small intestine, where it is partially absorbed. A small amount travels into the large intestine for release through the rectum. (The stomach also releases carbon dioxide when stomach acid and bicarbonate mix, but most of this gas is absorbed into the bloodstream and does not enter the large intestine.)

Breakdown of Undigested Foods

The body does not digest and absorb some carbohydrates (the sugar, starches, and fiber found in many foods) in the small intestine because of a shortage or absence of certain enzymes.

This undigested food then passes from the small intestine into the large intestine, where normal, harmless bacteria break down the food, producing hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and, in about one-third of all people, methane. Eventually these gases exit through the rectum.

People who make methane do not necessarily pass more gas or have unique symptoms. A person who produces methane will have stools that consistently float in water. Research has not shown why some people produce methane and others do not.

Foods that produce gas in one person may not cause gas in another. Some common bacteria in the large intestine can destroy the hydrogen that other bacteria produce. The balance of the two types of bacteria may explain why some people have more gas than others.

What are some symptoms and problems of gas?

The most common symptoms of gas are flatulence, abdominal bloating, abdominal pain, and belching. However, not everyone experiences these symptoms. The determining factors probably are how much gas the body produces, how many fatty acids the body absorbs, and a person's sensitivity to gas in the large intestine.

Belching

An occasional belch during or after meals is normal and releases gas when the stomach is full of food. However, people who belch frequently may be swallowing too much air and releasing it before the air enters the stomach.

Sometimes a person with chronic belching may have an upper GI disorder, such as peptic ulcer disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or gastroparesis.

Occasionally, some people believe that swallowing air and releasing it will relieve the discomfort of these disorders, and this person may intentionally or unintentionally develop a habit of belching to relieve discomfort.

Gas-bloat syndrome may occur after fundoplication surgery to correct GERD. The surgery creates a one-way valve between the esophagus and stomach that allows food and gas to enter the stomach but often prevents normal belching and the ability to vomit. It occurs in about 10 percent of people who have this surgery but may improve with time.

Flatulence

Another common complaint is passage of too much gas through the rectum (flatulence). However, most people do not realize that passing gas 14 to 23 times a day is normal. Too much gas may be the result of carbohydrate malabsorption.

Abdominal bloating

Many people believe that too much gas causes abdominal bloating. However, people who complain of bloating from gas often have normal amounts and distribution of gas. They actually may be unusually aware of gas in the digestive tract.

Doctors believe that bloating is usually the result of an intestinal disorder, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The cause of IBS is unknown, but may involve abnormal movements and contractions of intestinal muscles and increased pain sensitivity in the intestine. These disorders may give a sensation of bloating because of increased sensitivity to gas.

Any disease that causes intestinal inflammation or obstruction, such as Crohn's disease or colon cancer, may also cause abdominal bloating. In addition, people who have had many operations, adhesions (scar tissue), or internal hernias may experience bloating or pain. Finally, eating a lot of fatty food can delay stomach emptying and cause bloating and discomfort, but not necessarily too much gas.

Abdominal Pain and Discomfort

Some people have pain when gas is present in the intestine. When pain is on the left side of the colon, it can be confused with heart disease. When the pain is on the right side of the colon, it may mimic gallstones or appendicitis.

What diagnostic tests are used?

Because gas symptoms may be caused by a serious disorder, those causes should be ruled out. The doctor usually begins with a review of dietary habits and symptoms. The doctor may ask the patient to keep a diary of foods and beverages consumed for a specific time period.

If lactase deficiency is the suspected cause of gas, the doctor may suggest avoiding milk products for a period of time. A blood or breath test may be used to diagnose lactose intolerance.

In addition, to determine if someone produces too much gas in the colon or is unusually sensitive to the passage of normal gas volumes, the doctor may ask patients to count the number of times they pass gas during the day and include this information in a diary.

Careful review of diet and the amount of gas passed may help relate specific foods to symptoms and determine the severity of the problem.

Because the symptoms that people may have are so variable, the physician may order other types of diagnostic tests in addition to a physical exam, depending on the patient's symptoms and other factors.

How is gas treated?

Experience has shown that the most common ways to reduce the discomfort of gas are changing diet, taking medicines, and reducing the amount of air swallowed.

Diet

Doctors may tell people to eat fewer foods that cause gas. However, for some people this may mean cutting out healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and milk products.

Doctors may also suggest limiting high-fat foods to reduce bloating and discomfort. This helps the stomach empty faster, allowing gases to move into the small intestine.

Unfortunately, the amount of gas caused by certain foods varies from person to person. Effective dietary changes depend on learning through trial and error how much of the offending foods one can handle.

Prescription Medicines

Doctors may prescribe medicines to help reduce symptoms, especially for people with a disorder such as IBS.

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