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The Facts abouts Farts

Dr Adam Simon

We all do it, but for some IBS sufferers, farting can be a real problem. Let's look at they happen and how you can deal with them.

Whether you like it or not, a lot of people find farts amusing. You only have to head to YouTube to find thousands of videos of people caught farting in all sorts of unfortunate situations, from church services to live television broadcasts.

However, for some people, it can be hard to see the funny side of farting. If you have concerns about the frequency, noise or smell of your flatulence, it can make you feel uncomfortable in social or intimate situations, shatter your confidence and stop you from doing things you would otherwise enjoy.

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In these situations, it’s important not to suffer in silence. Talking about farting might seem taboo, but we’re here to break down those barriers and provide you with the information you need to tackle troublesome farts head on.

How many is 'normal'?

Everyone farts. It’s an inescapable reality for us all and while some people might try to claim they don’t fart, they definitely do.

As you can imagine, there’s a lot of debate about what the average number of farts a day should be. The general consensus seems to be around 14-15, but you certainly shouldn’t treat that as a target. There’s no reason to panic if you’re farting more or less than this.

In many cases, it’s down to your personal circumstances. For some people, even one audible fart is one of the most socially awkward situations imaginable. If your living arrangements mean you spend a lot of time on your own, you might not be bothered by, or even notice, a higher number of farts.

Finally, if those people who claim they never fart were telling the truth, then far from being something to boast about, it could actually be the sign of a more serious medical issue, such as an intestinal blockage.

Why Might You Be Farting So Often?

If you’ve become concerned at the amount of times you break wind in a day, the next step is to consider possible reasons why this might be happening. In general, the cause can be broken down into one of three groups.

Medical conditions

There are various health reasons that could cause bloating or excess gas. As flatulence stems from the gut, any digestion problems or issues with your bowels could be a contributing factor. Examples include:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) - There are many possible IBS triggers, but whatever the cause of it, a bloated feeling is often one of the outcomes.
  • Coeliac disease - A condition that occurs when the digestive system can’t cope with gluten and wheat products.
  • Lactose intolerance - An inability to properly digest lactose, a substance found in dairy products.
  • Indigestion - While indigestion [‘what we treat’ link] is commonly associated with eating too fast, it actually has many possible causes. Many of these can lead to bloating and more frequent flatulence.

Food

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Part of the digestion process involves nutrients from food being absorbed into your intestines to help your body continue to run efficiently.

Unfortunately, some foods are not as easy to digest as others. In particular, foods containing what are known as ‘unabsorbable carbohydrates’ are simply broken down by the bacteria in your gut. This results in gas, which of course has to go somewhere.

The most notorious examples of this include baked beans, Brussels sprouts and cabbage, but there are others too, such as:

  • Pulses
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Onion
  • Artichoke
  • Apple
  • Prune
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Bran-based cereal products

Air

You might not have considered this before, but when you think about it, it shouldn’t be that surprising. After all, when it comes down to it, air is at the heart of the issue we’re dealing with.

While some gas is created in the gut during digestion, much of it is introduced to the digestive system by swallowing. You can swallow excess air while talking, smoking, chewing gum and eating - particularly eating too quickly.

Why Are Some Farts So Loud?

If farts are produced by swallowing air, they contain nitrogen and carbon dioxide, rather than the gases produced within the gut, which are produced in smaller volumes. Simply put, if you swallow more air, there’s more gas to come out the other side and that requires more force, which in turn is what causes louder flatulence.

As we’ve already hinted at, eating more slowly could help here as it will limit the amount of air you swallow. You should also stop smoking and chewing gum to help with this.

Of course, if louder farts are often odourless, then the flipside of that coin brings us to the classic ‘silent but deadly’ theory. But does that stand up to scrutiny? Let’s find out.

Why Do Farts Smell?

There are few things more embarrassing than other people catching wind of a fart that you know you’re responsible for. Knowing what makes flatulence smell so bad can help you take steps to eliminate factors that might be affecting you.

The primary culprit here is sulphur, a gas given off by certain foods in your gut as they make their way through your digestive system. Anything that isn’t absorbed into your gut is broken down by bacteria, meaning it effectively starts to rot. This results in the nasty-smelling gas that regrettably exits the body in farts.

As for the ‘silent’ aspect - because the flatulence is produced by food rather than air, there is less gas and therefore less noise.

If you’re keen to reduce the odour of your farts, the best starting point is to take a look at your diet. Consider the sort of foods that can be responsible for bad smells (e.g. beans, cabbage, eggs and dairy products) and see if eliminating them from your diet helps with the issue. Make sure you test one food at a time in order to get accurate results from your experiments.

Everyone is different, so there’s unfortunately no definitive list of foods that will (or won’t) cause bad-smelling flatulence. It’s down to you to work out which foods affect you the most.

Additionally, one of the treatments you may not be aware of is charcoal, which is thought to absorb the smell of farts. This is available in the form of tablets, clothing or pads.

A 2013 study in the New Zealand Medical Journal actually suggested that charcoal should be embedded into seats on commercial aircraft, so that a person’s flatulence did not cause distress to their fellow passengers. However, the same study also suggested an alternative of “methane breath tests” that would potentially block frequent farters from boarding, so we’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions here.

When Should You See a Doctor?

You should seek medical advice if your flatulence is causing you physical pain or mental anxiety.

Symptoms such as persistent, sharp stomach cramps, a lack of control over when you pass wind, a constant bloated feeling or a consistently bad smell can all be cause for concern. A consultation with a doctor can help you put a plan together that will reduce your symptoms and allow you to avoid the distress flatulence can cause.

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Topics: Health, Diet, digestion, IBS