Aren't you glad somebody else got roped into writing about your farts and what they mean for your body? 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 normal digestive system; most people pass wind an average of five to 15 times a day, according to Dr. Niket Sonpal, M.D., FACP, a board-certified physician, internist, and gastroenterologist based in New York.
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 awry in your gastrointestinal system. “It’s important that, if you have symptoms in addition to passing excessive gas, you seek medical attention, especially fever, blood in your stools, or noticeable pain,” Dr. Siamak Tabib, M.D., board-certified gastroenterologist, assistant professor of medicine at UCLA, and cofounder of plant-based medicine company MDbio, tells Bustle.
The smell of flatulence is one of its most common characteristics, whether your farts smell like metal, sulfur, or you are blessed with sweet-smelling farts (might we all be so lucky). One of the most common observations of fart smells likens them to sulfur, which is due to hydrogen sulphide being released by bacterial fermentation in your gut as it digests food. “Particularly smelly gas can also be the result of health issues like a C. difficile infection or inflammatory bowel disease,” Tabib explains. “There are also some foods that have a naturally high sulfur content, which are likely to impact the odor.” Sulfur is an almighty stinky gas that 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 12 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 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 the digestive system, letting it absorb and transferring waste to be expelled. If you've recently had some kind of bacterial upset like a gastrointestinal infection, those good bacteria might be imbalanced and more likely to act oddly. The result? Your farts smell like sulfur.
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. “Any change in your bowel habits or abdominal pain that doesn't go away after a bowel movement could be a sign of a problem,” says Tabib, emphasizing the need to rule out other conditions that can cause frequent or smelly gas before simply writing it off. “It’s also important to watch for fever, unexpected weight loss, blood in your stools, or persistent diarrhea.”
2. You're Eating Too Fast
Gulping air into the stomach with your food is more common as a source of flatulence and burping than you might think. Air swallowing is one of the reasons nutritionists don't advocate eating on the run. Chowing down too quickly while you move can introduce air into the stomach in excessive amounts, and it's got to come out somewhere. Swallowing air can also occur when you're chewing gum or smoking. “It’s called aerophagia,” Sonpal says. “[The] best thing to do is slow down ... or drink water before meals to take up room in the stomach. This will prevent you from having ‘space’ for air.”
That’s not the only reason so slow your roll while eating. “Eating too quickly can not only lead to swallowing air ... but can also cause flatulence in other ways,” Tabib says, noting that when you’re shoveling your food down, you’re probably not chewing thoroughly before swallowing. This makes it harder for your stomach to digest.
3. You Have A Gluten Sensitivity
Anyone with a gluten intolerance can attest that severe gassiness often comes with the territory. It's important to note that gluten sensitivity is not the same as celiac disease, which is a “severe gluten intolerance,” Tabib tells Bustle. Celiac disease is characterized by an autoimmune response “in which your body treats the protein called ‘gluten’ as (effectively) poisonous,” he says. Over time, the reaction can inflame and damage the intestines, leading to malabsorption and indigestion.
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 can become more difficult to process as a person ages, causing 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 lactase enzyme that helps the body absorb lactose in the intestine. “When this happens, the body experiences malabsorption of lactose, which can lead to gas, diarrhea, and general discomfort,” Tabib explains. Tasty cheeses pass into the colon and are processed there, with copious gassy results.
Lactose intolerance is also much more common than you might expect. “Some studies say two-thirds of the world [is lactose intolerant],” says Sonpal. “But it’s not all or nothing. You slowly lose the enzyme,” he adds. “It’s not [as though] one day you wake up and boom, that’s it, no milk. You gradually lose the ability to digest it, [which] means everyone has varying degrees of lactose issues.” One way to tell? Cut out dairy completely for at least 72 hours, 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 composition. Most foods are broken down into nutrients and waste early on in the intestines, but some need to be passed on to the colon to complete the process. That produces gas that needs to be expelled. There are particular foods that cause gas in excess: “Certain fruits, including apples, peaches, and pears, and fruit juices; as well as vegetables, especially cruciferous vegetables, a group that includes broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and others; and legumes, a group that includes beans, peas, and lentils, can cause gas in this regard,” explains Tabib.
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. Eating too much meat also might be why your farts smell worse or stronger than normal. “Meats like beef and pork contain methionine, an amino acid that may produce that ‘eggy’ smell,” says Tabib. “Additionally, fat slows digestion, giving bacteria more time to work on the food in your large intestine and leading to more gas as a result.”
6. It's A Medication Side Effect
Flatulence is an unfortunate side effect of numerous medicines that interact with the digestive system. “It’s true on a case-by-case basis that ibuprofen may cause stomach irritation due to its effects in reducing prostaglandin (which has stomach-protecting properties),” Tabib says. “Taking it with food may help most patients with absorption and reducing stomach upset.”
Ibuprofen is far from the only culprit. “Laxatives definitely do create all sorts of aromas ... because all the stuck leftover poop is coming out,” says Sonpal. “It’s been sitting for longer than it should have, and therefore the smells are worse.”
Medications can cause flatulence for a variety of reasons. “These reasons may include killing healthy bacteria in the intestines, affecting the production of certain chemicals in the body that aid in digestion, and exacerbating existing health conditions like ulcers,” Tabib tells Bustle. Make sure you read the packet properly before taking any new meds to know whether you'll have a potential gas problem later.
7. You Have Giardiasis
Giardiasis is a gastrointestinal condition that needs to be treated with antibiotics to eliminate the parasites in your digestive system. “Giardiasis is the condition caused by an infection of giardia parasites,” Tabib explains. “Typically, it is contracted from being exposed to human or animal feces in water (lakes, rivers, or pools), but can also be contracted by exposure to contaminated food or on an unsanitized surface.” You'll know if you've got it: Its main hallmark is violent diarrhea, but it also charms with some vomiting and stomach upset.
8. You Have Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Ah, the very common IBS. This condition doesn't just feature flatulence on its own: It combines severe digestive sensitivity (usually in the large intestine) with stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, mucus in the stools, and infrequent bowel habits, according to Tabib. “IBS affects about one in five Americans and is more common in women,” he tells Bustle. “The onset of symptoms usually begins around age 20.” It's often lifelong and may have a genetic component, though it's not entirely clear what causes it yet. Up to 20% of the Western world might have IBS, 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 may be due to pressure on intestinal systems by the growing fetus). “It’s possible, but not entirely clear whether hormonal changes cause more gas, or whether post-menopausal women may just be experiencing changes to several of their systems at once,” Tabib notes. Stay tuned for more research on this one.
10. You May Have An Intestinal Obstruction
It’s possible that you may have ingested something that’s causing a block in your GI tract. “Intestinal obstruction or blockage (sometimes caused by a tumor in the intestine, thickened bands of tissue, or even a foreign body of some kind — something that was swallowed, or in rare cases, resulting from a stab, gunshot, or worksite wound) may cause flatulence by slowing down the rate of digestion, leading to increased fermentation and decomposition in the GI tract,” Tabib tells Bustle. “This can lead to unusually smelly flatulence and other complications, including infection.” While you’d probably know it if you’d been stabbed or shot — in which case flatulence is likely the least of your concerns — if you think you’re experiencing an intestinal blockage, it’s a good idea to seek medical attention.
11. You Might Have Gastroparesis
Gastroparesis is a disease that causes muscle weakening or paralysis around your intestines. This, Tabib says, can lead to flatulence in a similar way as a blockage. “Food material sits for too long in the digestive tract, leading to increased fermentation and possibly even infection.” The condition can also cause nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. The cause of gastroparesis is generally unknown, although it can be a complication of conditions like diabetes.
12. You May Have Dysbiosis
“Dysbiosis can be defined as an unhealthy reduction in the volume and diversity of necessary bacteria in the body,” explains Tabib. It’s often caused by antibiotic use. According to a 2015 study in Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease, dysbiosis may be associated with other intestinal disorders like IBS, inflammatory bowel disease, and celiac disease. If left unchecked, Tabib says the condition can cause an increased risk of certain digestive cancers. “Change in how flatulence smells is a potential symptom of dysbiosis, but it's important to talk with your doctor if you suspect it to be the case.”
While they can be stinky, loud, and hilarious, one thing is sure when it comes to your flatulence: In most cases, your fart is just a fart (remember your daily quota of five to 15). But if something is amiss and the smell strikes you as abnormal, it’s always a good idea to see a doctor to rule out any underlying stomach issues.
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Dr. Niket Sonpal, M.D., board-certified physician, internist, and gastroenterologist, and author and adjunct professor at Touro College
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