Aren't you glad somebody else got roped into writing about your farts and what they mean for your body? And there's lots to write about; farting isn't just a sign of antisocial behavior or a butt of jokes. (Though it's definitely been the foundation of humor for most of human history.) Healthy guffing, as it's called in the United Kingdom (or "tooting" if you're my prim grandmother), is a sign of a good digestive system; most people pass wind on average five to 15 times a day. If it's more than that, though, or if farting is accompanied by other symptoms like abdominal discomfort, fever, bloating, diarrhea and other charming things, it could be an insight into something going severely awry in your gastrointestinal system.
The smell of flatulence is one of its most common characteristics, and it's related to sulfur, or hydrogen sulphide, being released by bacterial fermentation in your gut as it digests food. Sulfur is an almighty stinky gas and can be produced in excess in the digestive system in response to certain types of food, particularly cruciferous vegetables.
If you're concerned that your flatulence frequency is transmitting a message you're just not getting, here are nine possible things your breaking wind may be telling you about the state of your health.
1. You Have (Or Just Had) An Infection
The way food is broken down in our bodies is actually fairly complex, but it involves a lot of bacteria and a multistage process, through the stomach, intestines, and colon. The bacteria actually ferment food as it passes through, letting it absorb and transferring waste to be expelled, which means that if you've recently had some kind of bacterial upset like a gastrointestinal infection, they might be imbalanced and more likely to act oddly. The result? Flatulence.
If you're recovering from an infection and have noticed much more gut discomfort than normal, go see your doctor again to rebalance your bacterial flora.
2. You're Eating Too Fast
Gulping air down into the stomach with your food is actually more common as a source of flatulence and burping than you might think. It's one of the reasons nutritionists don't advocate eating on the run, besides the fact that you don't pay as much attention to what you're eating; eating as you move or far too quickly can introduce air into the stomach in excessive amounts, and it's got to come out somewhere. Swallowing air can also happen when you're chewing gum or smoking, too.
3. You Have A Gluten Sensitivity
Gluten sensitivity seems to be all the rage these days, but people with genuine problems digesting gluten will attest that the problems are actually pretty violent, and do involve some severe gassiness. It's important to note that gluten sensitivity is not the same as celiac disease, something called a "malabsorption syndrome" where the intestine genuinely cannot absorb anything with gluten in it. Gluten sensitivity means the digestive system has a harder time with gluten-containing foods, but can eventually process them, producing a lot of gas and annoyance in the process.
4. You're Lactose Intolerant
Dairy in foods may, for many of us, become more difficult to process as we age, and cause more gas and abdominal discomfort. Bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract normally break down and ferment our foods; but in the case of lactose intolerance, a person lacks the lactate enzyme that helps the body absorb dairy products in the intestine, so tasty cheeses pass into the colon and are processed there, with copious gassy results. It's also much more common than you think: an estimated 98 percent of Southeast Asians, 90 percent of Asian-Americans, 74 percent of Native-Americans, 70 percent of African-Americans, and the majority of Jewish, Latino, and Indian people all suffer from lactose intolerance.
The usual medical advice? Cut dairy out completely for at least a few days, while keeping everything else as normal, and monitor your gas and level of abdominal distress; if the two seem correlated, it's likely that a low-dairy or no-dairy diet might help your future comfort.
5. You're Getting Your Fiber
The flatulence associated with some foods is due to their particular composition. Most foods are broken down into nutrients and waste early on in the intestines, but some are a bit more difficult, and that means they need to be passed on to the colon for the process to be completed. That produces gas that needs to be expelled. Foods that contain these sorts of unabsorbable carbohydrates include beans, prunes, lentils, onions, apples and Brussels sprouts.
If your farts are smelling like "rotten eggs," that scent is generally due to hydrogen sulfide, a gas that's created when your body breaks down foods with sulfur in them, like the aforementioned vegetables and beans above. If you're also noticing that your farts are particularly smelly — but not exactly "eggy" — it may also be due to your excessive consumption of meat.
6. It's A Medication Side Effect
Flatulence is an unfortunate side effect of numerous medicines, many of which are taken by mouth and interact with the digestive system. The one you're likely most familiar with is ibuprofen, which is meant to be taken with food to minimize its potentially disruptive effects on the stomach. Others include laxatives, statins, and some anti-fungal medicines, so always make sure you read the packet properly before you take any meds to know whether you'll have a potential gas problem later.
7. You Have Giardiasis
I've had personal experience with this one; in 1998, the water supply in Sydney, Australia, where I was born, was contaminated with Giardia intestinalis parasites, and all water from taps had to be boiled before it was safe to drink. Giardiasis is a particularly nasty gastrointestinal condition that needs to be treated by antibiotics to eliminate the parasites in your digestive system, and it's normally caught through drinking water or cross-contamination. Trust me, you'll know if you've got it: its main hallmark is violent diarrhea.
8. You Have Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Ah, the very common IBS. This genuinely lovely disease doesn't just feature flatulence on its own: it combines severe digestive system sensitivity (usually in the large intestine) with abdominal cramps, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. It's often lifelong and seems to possibly have a genetic component, though it's not entirely clear what causes it yet. Up to 20 percent of the Western world might suffer from it, though, so you're definitely not on your own if this is your final diagnosis.
9. You Might Be Going Through Hormonal Shifts
Hormonal upheaval, it's been suggested, can be responsible for intestinal shifts and corresponding amounts of flatulence. Menopausal women often report an uptick in their gas levels, as do pregnant women (though that's often to do with pressure on intestinal systems by the growing fetus). But it's not clear if hormonal changes are actually the culprit, or if menopausal women are actually suffering from a coinciding of symptoms: their hormone levels are changing and their digestive system is agong, and the two might not actually affect one another all that much. Stay tuned for more research on this one.
This post was originally published on March 1, 2016. It was updated on June 10, 2019.