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Sensitive Stomachs: Secrets to Gas Control

Gas can often accompany diarrhea, making an uncomfortable situation even worse. Here’s how to make your GI tract behave better.

Gas -- as in excess gas, the kind that escapes without warning from your gastrointestinal tract -- is a fact of life. But it's often an uncomfortable, downright humiliating one.

By itself, excessive gas is unpredictable, annoying, and has the potential to ruin a good dinner party, first date, graduation, wedding, or other celebrations. And when it accompanies diarrhea, it can be a double whammy, leaving you feeling bloated – and embarrassed.

Never mind that it's a universal problem."We all pass gas, even people who don't admit to it," says Lawrence Kosinski, MD, a gastroenterologist in Chicago and a spokesperson for the American Gastroenterological Association.

"People are really disturbed by gas," says Vicky Hertig, RN, PhD, a lecturer at the University of Washington, Seattle, who has researched the topic. "They feel bloated, they feel gassy. Especially women. They feel uncomfortable, not pretty."

But as bad as gas makes you feel, it’s usually not dangerous. Typically, "the passage of gas is nothing someone has to go to the doctor for,"  Kosinski says, especially since there are a number measures you can take to get gas relief. Of course, anyone who is extremely bothered by chronic gas should see his doctor, who can prescribe lifestyle measures or perhaps medication and rule out any serious reasons for the problem.

For mildly annoying cases of gas, what should you know and what can you do? WebMD rounded up three experts who share their secrets to gas control. Find out how much gas is too much, and how to make simple changes to keep it in check -- including some surprises about what's really at the bottom of all that flatulence.

How Much Gas Is Too Much?

"Everyone has different levels of sensitivity to gas," says Harry Aslanian, MD, an associate professor of gastroenterology at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

And while there's no "normal" amount, the average adult passes about a pint a day, he says. That means passing gas about 14 times a day, other experts estimate.

Gas Control: Analysis

The first thing you have to decide before getting control of your gas problem is whether it's an "inside" problem or an "outside" problem, says Kosinski.

"Is the gas coming from outside, because you are swallowing [too much air]?" he asks. Or do you have a nervous habit of continual swallowing, maybe due to loose dentures? People who are overly stressed sometimes swallow too much air, Kosinski says. And that air makes its way down the entire gastrointestinal tract, gassing up your lower half.  Smokers tend to swallow more air, too.

Or is your painful gas mainly an inside job, thanks to what you eat – or even chew, including gum?

Either way, you can get control.

Gas Control: Dietary Changes

Beans have the reputation as the food that makes you toot, but Kosinski says the No. 1 food he sees associated with excess gas is dairy, especially as you age. For some people, dairy can also cause diarrhea.

"As we get older, the majority of us will lose the ability to absorb the sugar that is in milk, called lactose, and it will cause patients to have gas and bloating, and sometimes even loose stools," Kosinski tells WebMD.

If you have this problem -- and if you have  excessive gas right after indulging in dairy products, you probably do -- the remedies are simple, he says.

Opt for lactose-reduced milk or lactose-free milk. Yogurt may not cause any problems if it has active cultures, he says.

And some research finds that probiotics -- active bacteria cultures found in yogurt -- improve flatulence in those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Gas is a common symptom of IBS.

If you can't resist milk, or cheeses that are full of lactose -- such as ricotta or other soft cheeses -- take the enzyme lactase, which helps digest lactose. It can be bought in tablet or liquid form without a prescription. Look for Dairy Ease, for instance, or Lactaid. That will help your body break down the sugar, Kosinski says.

Beans do produce more than their fair share of gas, thanks to other sugars that aren't digested well. Solutions: cooking vegetables longer may reduce the gas later, as may taking an over-the-counter pill (Beano). It has an enzyme to break down the sugars.

Beer, soda and other carbonated beverages tend to produce gas, too. If you’re experiencing gas and bloating, you may want to drink something else.

If you have IBS, gas comes with the territory. Everyone is supposed to eat more fiber for good health, but if you have IBS and are bothered by chronic gas, pick your fiber wisely, Kosinski says. He says you may have an easier  time with rice, for example, than with wheat.

In general, healthy people don't produce excessive gas from fiber, he says. However, if you up your fiber intake, you may have more gas for a while. If you’re just boosting fiber intake and gassiness is a problem, you can expect it to level off in a few weeks as your body adjusts. Give it about three weeks.

In extreme cases, Kosinski says he switches people from grains to green vegetables to get their fiber. They will still take in enough fiber, but lose some of the excessive flatulence.  

Or, he might put them on a fiber supplement.

Some vegetables can cause gas, says Aslanian. "Beans, broccoli, and cauliflower will have more gas production [than others]," he says.    

Non-sugar sweeteners, widely used in foods and low-cal sweets, can cause excessive gas production, says Aslanian. "In the process of passing through the intestinal tract, they interact with bacteria in the colon and produce gas," he says.

Gas Control: Bad Habits Begone

Besides eating gas-producing foods, "the other big area of gas production is swallowing air," says Aslanian. "Everyone swallows some air. But if you chew gum, you swallow more air."

Other gas-making habits: eating quickly or eating while talking. You'll take in more air in both cases, he says.

To stop gas, ditch the gum or cut down, slow down when you talk, and don't multitask when you eat.

If you're stressed-out, you may also be producing more gas, says Hertig, who has researched the role of stress and gastrointestinal problems in women with IBS.

In these women, "the more stressed you are, the more gas and abdominal pain," she says. She asked women in a study to keep track of their IBS symptoms and their stress levels. When the women learned to reduce stress, she says, their gas production also declined.

Gas Control: Lifestyle Improvements

There are a few other things you can do to reduce your gas production – like quitting smoking.

And what isn't exercise good for? Turns out, a little exercise -- walking, jogging -- can help stimulate the passage of gas through your GI tract, according to the American Gastroenterological Association.

Of course, you might want to work out solo.

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