Farting is universally hilarious. Across every culture, every religion, every language, the issuance of gas from a person’s posterior will – once the wrinkled noses have smoothed out – evoke laughter from just about everyone in earshot. I won’t try to explain why it’s so dang funny, especially when we can turn to Louis C.K. for his masterful thesis on the matter. C.K arrives at three factors: it comes out of your butt, it smells like poop, and it makes a trumpet noise. Taken separately, these things range from gross to inconsequential. After all, plenty of things sound like trumpets. Trumpets, for one. But together, they form a symphony of comedy that’s greater than the constituent parts.
But when they’re issuing out of your body uncontrollably on a regular basis, farts can be a touchy subject. I won’t name any names, but more than a few readers have written in over the past few months with questions about farting spouses, children, and even pets. These readers often admit that flatulence has comedic merit, but just as incessant quoting of Borat after the movie came out quickly got old, farting all the time is annoying. And it might even be the sign of something wrong with your diet.
So, while the pet angle may be beyond the scope of today’s post, I’m going to offer some insight into human flatulence. I’ll deal with both the causes and the potential solutions, mostly at once (because the problems and solutions are intertwined).
First, what is it?
Flatulence is the expunging of intestinal gas, which is either endogenous or exogenous. Exogenous intestinal gas comes from the outside; it is literally swallowed, usually when a person eats too fast, drinks too fast (or drinks bubbly drinks like sodas or sparkling water), or chews gum too vociferously. Exogenous flatulence isn’t too much of a problem, because it usually doesn’t smell and it isn’t caused by eating the wrong foods. It’s actually normal to have exogenous flatulence. If it’s excessive and causing you problems, simple behavior modification can fix this one pretty quickly. Chew and drink more slowly and carefully, avoid smoking, and try to avoid excessive gasping. Stressful situations can exacerbate this, too – think breathing in deeply and rubbing your temples because something just went wrong, and then do it fifty times a day and you get a picture of how you might be swallowing more air than you intend. You want to breathe your air, not ingest it.
Endogenous intestinal gas is a different beast, and it’s the one we’re going to focus on today. It comes from bacterial fermentation of carbohydrates. More specifically, it comes from fermentation of carbohydrates that we improperly or incompletely digest in the small intestine. These leftover bits make it to the colon/large intestine, and that’s where the magic happens.
To address this, first things first, pay attention to FODMAPs, or fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. FODMAPs are carbohydrates that some people can’t totally digest in the small intestine. If that’s the case, when they hit the colon, the flora there break it down and ferment it, thus producing large amounts of endogenous intestinal gases like methane, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide, bloating, and other complications. FODMAPs can include healthy, totally Primal foods, but they also include decidedly unPrimal stuff, too. If you’re farting a lot, your first step should be to understand FODMAPs, because they are likely suspects. Let’s go through the various categories, highlighted in Jamie’s excellent piece from last year:
- Oligosaccharides include things like fructans (fructose with a single glucose molecule attached) and galactans (fructose with a molecule of galactose attached). Sources of fructans are wheat, onions, artichokes, jicama, jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, onions, garlic, and leeks. Inulin, a prebiotic fiber I’ve written about before and which can have numerous health benefits, is a fructan. Galactans are found in legumes (beans, lentils, etc), Brussels sprouts, and broccoli (hence the lovely term “broccoli fart” and the product called “Beano,” which I always found to be a disgusting name).
- The most common disaccharide is lactose, or milk sugar. Anyone who’s tried GOMAD (Gallon of Milk a Day) while being lactose intolerant (or been within a mile of someone who fits that description) understands what foul gases improperly digested lactose can produce. If there’s one thing I’m thankful for, it’s that Mark Rippetoe endogenously produces lactase. Better choices include hard, long-fermented cheeses and raw dairy, proponents of which claim it contains lactase for easier digestion. I’m not sure about that one myself, as a lactose-intolerant buddy of mine once sampled some raw milk at a Santa Monica’s farmers’ market at the vendor’s urging and suffered (we both did, albeit I did so indirectly) familiar side effects. Your mileage may vary, though. Sucrose is another disaccharide, so avoid it (which you probably already were).
- Monosaccharides refer primarily to fructose. That means avoiding HFCS, obviously, but even “healthier” choices like honey, and dried fruit like dates and raisins. Eat low fructose fruits like berries.
- Polyols are sugar alcohols. Xylitol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, pretty much any -ol. Naturally occuring polyols can also be found in certain fruits, like blackberries, stone fruits, pears, and watermelon.
For a complete and handy table of FODMAPs friendly and unfriendly foods, check out the bottom of this post.
So, yeah, right off the bat, avoid FODMAPs. Do this for a week or two and see if your farting subsides. If it does, try reintroducing small amounts of select FODMAPs. Pick a category and start there. Eat a few slices of jicama, some Brussels sprouts, or some onion. Be systematic about it and limit yourself to a single food from a single FODMAP category at a time.
Keep a detailed food journal for a month and keep tabs on your digestive symptoms. If you fart, mark when, where, and what you just ate. You can even note the severity of the flatulence, including odor, volume, and number of laughs received (partly kidding here). Over time, you should be able to note correlations between certain foods and the severity and incidence of your flatulence.
Eat simple meals. Instead of having crazy curries and stews all the time with dozens of ingredients, stick to meat and vegetable. Note the singular “vegetable” and don’t eat broccoli, brussel sprouts, and cabbage in the same meal. Give your gut a chance to get its bearings and you’ll have a clearer picture of what’s causing the gas.
Add some digestive enzymes. Robb Wolf is a big proponent of NOW Foods brand digestive enzymes, and I’d definitely trust his judgment. Remember, a lot of flatulence is caused by bacterial fermentation of undigested food. If you lack the right digestive enzymes, more food bits will make it to the colon for fermentation. According to Robb, you want to take the enzymes shortly before the meal. Start with five or six capsules and stop when you start feeling warmth in your belly – that means it’s working.
Chew your food thoroughly. The more you chew, the greater the surface area of the food and the better you digest it. The better you digest your food, the less food will make it through to your colon. This will also help with exogenous gas flatulence.
Add some probiotics or fermented foods. Note, though, that you’ll want to limit FODMAPs before adding probiotics, as otherwise you’ll just be providing more fuel for the fire.
Limit prebiotic supplements for now. Until you get a handle on things, you don’t want to introduce more FODMAPs. I know that when I was doing daily extensive testing of Primal Fuel, including changing the ratios of prebiotic inulin to achieve the perfect texture, I had some mild flatulence at first (TMI?). A bit of flatulence from prebiotics is completely normal, especially early on, but if it gets worse or doesn’t improve, it’s probably worth watching.
All in all, some mild flatulence is nothing to worry about. It may hurt your social health, but it’s not a medical condition. Severe, continuous flatulence, however, accompanied by painful bloating? Yeah, you need to fix that. Try these fixes, pay attention to potentially offensive foods listed, and keep that food journal. It’s all fun and games and cups o’ cheese (NSFW) until you get bacterial overgrowth (from feeding the colonic flora) and, possibly, Crohn’s disease. So get a handle on it.
Of course, if you can’t, you might consider pursuing a career as a flatulist. Saint Augustine himself had nothing but high praise for the men who possessed such “command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at will, so as to produce the effect of singing.” Whatever your spiritual inclination (or non-inclination), I think we can all appreciate a religious man who admires professional fart artists.
Take care, folks, and happy digesting. If you’ve had success or failure with defeating flatulence, let us know in the comment section. I’m always all ears for more input from you guys, and I know we have plenty of readers who could use assistance from someone who’s been there.