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Flatulence and Bloating

Written by Adam Whitby

Flatulence describes intestinal gas or wind in the stomach or any other part of the digestive system (alimentary canal) that is expelled either through the mouth (belch or burp), or from the bowel (breaking wind). Gas is part of the normal digestive process, and usually doesn’t cause any problems (except perhaps for a few embarrassing moments!). But sometimes too much gas is produced, and flatulence often comes with abdominal distension, swelling or bloating.

So, bloating is essentially a build up of gas. But where does all this gas come from? Well, we actually swallow a lot of it. Eating, drinking and chewing cause air to be swallowed, particularly from fizzy drinks, by chewing gum, and also when eating is accompanied by lots of talking and laughing! Eating on the go and when stressed also can cause problems. Gas can also be caused by certain anxiety states, however, the majority of the gas we need to expel is due to excessive microbial activity. The human gut, particularly the large intestine (colon) is host to vast numbers of bacteria. Some can be potentially harmful, the so-called ‘pathogenic’ or bad bacteria, but some are beneficial to our health and wellbeing which are the friendly bacteria.

Don't panic if you see someone do this, gas is a natural by-product of your digestion!

The bacterium Escherichia coli is usually quite harmless while living in the intestines (although some strains of Escherichia can cause gastrointestinal infections) but if E. coli finds its way into the bladder it can cause cystitis (inflammation of the bladder). So it’s essential to keep bacteria in places where they should be (different types of bacteria live in different parts of the body), and to keep levels of helpful bacteria high.

It is the activities of both good and bad bacteria that cause the majority of gas in the digestive system. Gas or wind is a combination of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, methane and others formed in the gut during the digestive process, so it’s no wonder that its release can be unpleasant! Normal amounts of gas show that our digestive system is working properly, that the friendly bacteria are busily extracting nutrients from the food we eat while keeping bad bacteria to normal levels, and that our system is expelling what it doesn’t need (rather than holding on to it, which can cause a different set of problems).

But if those gases are being produced in greater than normal amounts (and we would all know if that happens) perhaps accompanied by a feeling of being full in the stomach, which may be physically bloated or swollen, then these can be signs the digestive process is not functioning in an optimal manner.  This could be down to a number of reasons, including an imbalance of good and bad bacteria; an overgrowth of yeast such as Candida; food intolerances; low stomach acid or digestive enzymes, poor eating habits; hormonal imbalances; or something as simple as a lack of water intake to flush toxins out of the body.  When flatulence is particuarly offensive it is often a sign that the food is not being digested properly, and waste not expelled often enough. This causes waste to become putrid and toxic which can then cause flatulence to smell as such as well. If this is the case you may find this blog post on bloating and stools interesting. 

Whatever the cause, you need to take a holistic approach and ask yourself why you have flatulence and bloating, as opposed to simply seeking out a medicinal quick fix.  A great first step can be to see a nutritionist, or to speak to staff at your local independent health food shop - they are a fountain of knowledge! 

For more ideas, take a look at Probiotics for Bloating and Natural Remedies for Bloating

About Adam Whitby

Adam has been involved in health and medicine for over thirty years, mostly reviewing clinical studies for general practitioners, writing patient information leaflets and producing medical video programmes.

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