Benjamin Franklin wrote a whole pamphlet on the subject. He suggested that if people added to their diet certain perfumes and flowers, they would soon be breaking wind as delectable as summer breezes. Of course, two hundred years later, our intestinal air is, well, as succulent as ever. Most of us, like it or not, do have our own ‘factory-installed’ Whoopie Cushions. The flowers didn’t work and flatulence prevails. Certainly one of those health issues in the realm of the genuinely annoying rather than medically serious, flatulence can still cause considerable discomfort, noise, and embarrassment. (Unless you’re about eight years old, in which case, expect considerable popularity among your peers.)
The truth is some degree of flatulence is perfectly normal, a natural part of the digestive process. Most people break wind at least 15 or more times a day. If you’re in the “more” group, however, and it’s distressing you or others around you, seriously think about trying WholeHealthChicago’s recommendations for cutting down on intestinal gas.
Much of the problem has to do with what you eat, of course, so we’ll show you what to avoid and offer some additional remedies as well–herbs, digestive enzymes, and even simple ways to change the odor causing bacteria in your intestines.
What Is Flatulence?
Flatulence is the presence of excessive gas in the gastrointestinal tract. When you sense uncomfortable pressure, your natural response can be to release a belch from your stomach or pass intestinal gas–called flatus–through the anus. It’s harmless, and quite normal. The average person belches or passes gas many times a day. Often, it happens unnoticed, because unless certain bacterial culprits are at work, intestinal gas can be virtually odorless. But other times, it can produce the smell we know too well.
What causes that odor that makes you thankful you’re alone in the elevator when you cut the cheese? Gastrointestinal gas is composed in part of carbon dioxide, hydrogen, methane, and sulfur dioxide, all byproducts of digestion. It’s the sulfur-containing components that are responsible for the offensive smell that accompanies flatus. Unfortunately, humans, not generally sensitive to smells, have an uncanny ability to sniff out the presence of sulfur compounds. But if you suffer from excessive gas, making changes to your diet and using certain supplements can bring welcome relief–for you and the people around you.
• Expulsion of intestinal gas through the anus
• Abdominal bloating
• Crampy abdominal pain that seems to shift or disappear with movement
What Causes Flatulence?
Your large intestine contains helpful bacteria, which work to digest your food. Some foods contain complex carbohydrates, which are harder to break down in the stomach and small intestine. When partially digested carbohydrates from certain foods ferment in the large intestine, excess gas results. The most frequent food offenders are beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and other types of legumes and vegetables. Other causes of excessive gas include:
Swallowing air. When you’re under stress and eat or drink too quickly, you may gulp more air than usual. This swallowed air is responsible for belching and will pass into the intestines to produce extra gas.
Lactose intolerance. If you have trouble digesting the sugar in milk, or lactose, you may often be plagued by bouts of gas after you consume dairy products. If you know that drinking a glass of milk will make you gassy, you probably have some degree of lactose intolerance.
Celiac disease. Certainly not a common cause of flatulence, but people with this disorder have a hard time digesting gluten, a protein found in many grains, including wheat, rye, oats, and barley. If you have celiac disease, you will likely experience gas and bloating after eating any of these.
Hidden food sensitivities. Although not true allergies, many individuals are simply sensitive to certain foods. The major offenders are dairy, egg, corn, wheat and citrus. Although a blood test can be helpful to diagnose food sensitivities, performing an intestinal detoxification, and then re-introducing foods, is the most useful diagnostic step you can take. See instructions below.
Useful Laboratory Tests
Food allergy testing. This is a blood test which measures the antibodies that your immune system might be creating to any of 96 commonly eaten foods. The assumption is made that if your immune system is creating antibodies to these foods, it must be regarding these foods as ‘enemy.’ Many people discover that when they eliminate those foods which test ‘positive,’ many of their symptoms improve.
Comprehensive Stool Digestive Analysis. With this test, you receive a take-home kit to collect three samples of your bowel movement. You then send the kit by Airborne Express directly to the laboratory. By analyzing your fecal material, the lab can determine how well you are digesting and absorbing your food, whether you are infected with parasites, and the balance of bacteria present in your intestines.
Breath Hydrogen Test. This test is performed when there is doubt about the presence of lactose intolerance. It is usually performed in the outpatient laboratory of a hospital.
Anti-gliaden antibodies. This is a blood test helpful for diagnosing celiac disease.
Treatment and Prevention
Unless your flatulence is extreme, it is not necessary to do anything about it. But if it’s a bothersome problem, the first step is to cut down on or eliminate the foods that give you gas.
Very little is available in conventional medicine specifically for flatulence. Most physicians recommend a change in dietary habits and the use of over-the-counter products such as Gas-X.
If you’re not sure which foods are causing your gassiness, try using the eating program described in an UltraClear Sustain elimination diet. Basically, while taking this product, you will be eliminating all dairy, egg, corn, wheat and citrus. After you have completed the intestinal detoxification (about two weeks), you re-introduce one food group every three days. If a specific food group makes you very gassy, then eliminate that group and move on to the next. By the time you have re-introduced all the usual suspects, you may have solved “The Case of the Deadly Flatulence.” If that doesn’t work, or you’d rather not miss out on some favorite (and healthful) foods, supplements may help to minimize your gastrointestinal discomfort.
UltraClear Sustain (Metagenics)
This is the gold standard detoxification product in nutritional medicine (along with UltraClear, and Ultra InflamX). It is totally hypoallergic and contains a variety of natural ingredients designed to heal the lining of the intestine that may have been damaged by sensitizing foods, parasites, and unhealthful bacteria. The container of UltraClear Sustain comes with an instructional booklet on how to use the product correctly.
How Supplements Can Help
A variety of supplements can be very effective at reducing the gas build-up that causes flatulence. Digestive enzymes, probiotics, certain carbohydrates, herbs or activated charcoal may be useful. They work in different ways to support or enhance different aspects of the digestive process.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it always a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning a supplement program.
Plant-based digestive enzymes that contain a mixture of amylase, lipase, lactase, and protease support the natural work of the pancreas in processing food. If you have a lot of gas and feel bloated or overfull after eating, these may be right for you. Digestive enzymes are particularly helpful if a specific food or eating too much seems to trigger flatulence. A one-month trial will often determine if the enzymes will be effective. If, after regularly using enzymes for a month, you find no change in your digestive symptoms, then enzyme deficiency is probably not an issue with you.
Similase (Tyler Encapsulations)
This is an established favorite among natural health practitioners, and, as described above, is a combination of several different enzymes, all of which are plant based. Obviously vegetarians prefer plant based products, but there is good medical sense, too. Plant based enzymes work well in the full range of stomach acidity (high pH to low pH), whereas animal based work only in a limited range. The usual dose is 2 capsules taken during a small meal, 3-4 capsules with a larger one.
Acidophilus and bifidus, known as probiotics, are the gut’s so-called good bacteria. Among other things, they help keep gas-producing bacteria in the large intestine from multiplying too much. Increasing the level of good bacteria in the gut can relieve gas, bloating, and other digestive woes. Both should be taken between meals. Look for a dairy-free strain if you’ve determined that your gas may be due to lactose intolerance.
Ultra DophilusDF (Metagenics)
The Metagenics people have been very proud of the widespread acceptance among healthcare practitioners of this dairy-free probiotic in powder form. Highly concentrated and virtually tasteless, this can be taken as ½ tsp twice daily in ½ cup of warm water, between meals
Probiotic (Tyler Encapsulations)
This product has the convenience of being in capsules, not requiring refrigeration, and also contains some fructo-oligosachharides (F-O-S) the ‘food’ for good bacteria, encouraging intestinal reproduction of the ‘good guys.’
FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides) may be a good idea as well. These indigestible carbohydrates stimulate the growth of acidophilus and bifidus, boosting their effectiveness
(Probiotic) Tyler Encapsulation.
Ginger is used to relieve many digestive complaints. This herb contains oils that soothe the digestive tract. Try taking ginger supplements or mixing freshly grated ginger root with diluted lime juice to remedy flatulence. You might also make a ginger tea, using 2 teaspoons of powdered ginger or grated fresh ginger per cup of hot, but not boiling, water
Gingermax (Phytopharmica) This long established nutritional supplement firm was the first to standardize a ginger product, useful for both digestive complaints and a natural antiinflammatory
Dose: one capsule two or three times a day between meals
Ginger Tea is available at most health food stores.
Activated charcoal taken after meals may help relieve flatulence when all else fails. It absorbs intestinal gas and helps minimize the odor. You can take it in powder or pill form
Activated charcoal is available at most health food and drug stores.
• Steer clear of artificial sweeteners. Sorbitol and xylitol, found in many sugar-free gums and candies, have a reputation for causing flatulence.
• Slow down at the table. Gulping your meals can lead to incomplete digestion and, consequently, gas. Be sure to chew your food thoroughly before you send it down the hatch. This activates the enzymes in your saliva, which aids digestion. Eating smaller, more frequent meals instead of a few huge meals a day will also help.
• Prepare beans properly. Soak beans for a few hours before you cook them to remove some of their gas-producing carbohydrates. Be sure to discard the soaking water and use fresh water to cook the beans.
• Avoid gas-producing foods and beverages. Foods that are high in complex carbohydrates (some vegetable and legumes as well as high-fiber foods like prunes) are the most likely to cause flatulence. Meat, fish, eggs, grapes, berries, and nuts are less likely to give you gas. Also try to consume fewer foods raw, rather than cooked.
• Stir-fry or steam vegetables. Cook your vegetables just to the point where they are still slightly crunchy (sometimes called Chinese-style). This will help preserve the natural enzymes found in food that can help your digestion.
• Avoid dairy products if you have detected that you are lactose intolerant. Lactose is the natural sugar in milk that requires an enzyme (lactase) to digest it. There are many good “dairy-free” or “lactose-free” products available. The Lact-Aid company makes two popular products. Lact-Aid is simply lactase in a dropper bottle that you add to regular milk. The lactase then ‘pre-digests’ the milk for you. If adding a drop or two of Lact-Aid to milk sounds too complicated, the company is happy to do it for you and sell you expensive cartons of lactose-free milk.
When To Call A Doctor
• If severe bloating is accompanied by stomach cramps that seem worse than typical gas pains; blood in stool;
• If you are rapidly losing weight
Before you take any supplements, first try stopping all dairy products for a week. If your excess gas and flatulence disappear, that’s your clue that you may simply have developed lactose intolerance. And that’s easily treated by taking Lact-Aid or drinking lactose-free milk.
How to Take the Supplements
To start, determine which foods are causing your episodes of flatulence (the elimination diet we’ve described will help), and then make some changes to your diet. At the same time, you can add some digestive enzymes and fix the “friendly bacteria” balance in your intestines with the probiotics, acidophilus and/or bifidus, and the FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides). Within a month or two, you’ll know if this program is effective. At the end of this time, you can drop the probiotics and FOS, and simply continue using digestive enzymes with your meals.
The ginger or the activated charcoal will help relieve acute symptoms. So if you have episodes of uncomfortable flatulence now and then despite the enzymes and probiotics, start at once using either of these until you get relief.
The activated charcoal, which has been a popular gas-absorbing and deodorizing remedy for years, is available as a capsule or a powder. You can take it when you’re feeling especially gassy, or once a day for prevention until other methods begin to take effect. To use the powder, place it in a large glass, fill slowly with water and stir. Drink with a straw to avoid staining your teeth.
• We at WholeHealthChicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Similase (Tyler) plant-based digestive enzymes
1-2 capsules with a small meal, 2-4 capsules with a larger one. Consider sprinkling contents of capsules over food.
Ultra Dophilus DF (Metagenics)
½ tsp in water twice a day
Probiotics (Tyler) an acidophilus/bifidus/FOS combination
1 or 2 capsules twice a day between meals.
2,000 mg twice a day.
250-500 mg 2 or 3 times a day as needed.
2 tbsp. powder mixed into large glass of water 30 minutes before a meal. Sip through a straw to avoid staining your teeth. Alternatively, 1,000 mg in capsule form when needed. Limit preventive use to no more than 4,000 mg a day.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD