Intestinal gas

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at November 28, 2015
StartSymptomsIntestinal gas

Intestinal gas is a natural, normal part of life. However, many people experience intestinal gas to such an extreme degree that it causes serious problems.

Contents

Definition & Facts

Gas is constantly present in the human digestive tract. This gas is a by-product of the bacterial breakdown of food and consists mainly of nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide.

However, methane and sulfur compounds may also be present depending on the foods eaten and the types of bacteria colonizing the intestines. Research has found that people produce an average of one to three pints of gas per day and pass gas about 14 times per day. Excess gas, defined as passing gas more than 20 times per day, often causes significant discomfort.

Causes

Intestinal gas generally comes from consuming foods that are not sufficiently broken down in the stomach. Instead, whatever is still intact will be, or in some cases must be, broken down by bacteria that occur naturally in the intestines or colon.

Certain foods are widely known for their tendency to cause gas, usually due to possessing a high fiber content or containing types of sugars that are difficult for the body to break down. Common examples include lactose, fructose, legumes, pulpy fruits, prunes, stevia, cabbage, broccoli, greens and whole grains. Sugar alcohols like sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol and inositol, which are used to sweeten many diabetic-friendly candies and desserts, are also known to cause severe intestinal gas as well as upset stomach and diarrhea.

Furthermore, several health problems are implicated in severe chronic gas, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), ulcerative colitis, Celiac disease, food intolerances and sensitivities, stomach ulcers, gastroparesis, Crohn's disease, diverticulitis and dumping syndrome.

When to see a doctor

Intestinal gas is rarely a sign of a more serious health problem, but it can be embarrassing, inconvenient and may cause unpleasant symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, bowel cramping, upset stomach and loss of appetite.

In some cases, however, intestinal gas may warrant a trip to the doctor as it could indicate an underlying condition that requires treatment. If you struggle with excessive intestinal gas that presents with vomiting, constipation, chest pain, diarrhea, bloody or black, tarry stools, fever, chills, sharp or persistent stomach pain, abdominal tenderness, unexplained weight loss or abdominal swelling and distension, see your doctor right away.

These may be signs of serious health problems like Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, colon cancer, intestinal obstruction, parasitic infection, diverticulitis, stomach ulcers, bacterial or viral infections or necrosis of the bowel. For some people, eating certain foods will trigger these problems, even if those foods aren't well-known to cause the symptoms they're experiencing.

This indicates possible food sensitivities or intolerances, which are becoming increasingly common. Foods that are most likely to cause this include wheat, dairy, soy, corn, nuts, citrus fruit, eggs, seafood, sulfites (from wine and processed meats) and even carrots. If left untreated, these food issues can cause more pressing health problems in the long term. People who suspect a food sensitivity or intolerance should see a doctor for testing.

Treatment & Therapy

Often times, intestinal gas can be treated at home without the need for a physician's guidance. If the condition fails to respond to home remedies, however, a doctor's assistance may be necessary. If the problem is related to irregularity, a doctor may try prescribing laxatives.

Excess intestinal gas may also be related to anxiety, stress or other mood disorders, so if this is the suspected cause, anxiolytics, antidepressants or psychotherapy may be prescribed. Due to growing research on intestinal bacteria, some doctors are even beginning to treat patients with chronic gas by using certain strains of bacteria to combat overpopulation of harmful bacteria in the gut.

If intestinal gas is being caused by a more serious health problem, like Crohn's disease or irritable bowel syndrome, addressing those disorders is the first line of treatment. For these problems, doctors frequently utilize painkillers, laxatives, antidiarrheals, immunosuppressants, anti-inflammatory drugs and a complete overhaul of the patient's diet. For people with food intolerances or sensitivities, eliminating the foods that trigger symptoms is the standard treatment.

When a parasitic infection is suspected, which is common for patients who have traveled to third-world countries it will be treated using antiparasitic drugs. When GERD or stomach ulcers are causing intestinal gas, doctors may recommend the use of proton-pump inhibitors and stomach acid neutralizers. For bowel obstructions, diverticulitis or necrotizing sections of intestine, which are medical emergencies, surgery is the most common solution.

If the doctor suspects food poisoning caused by the consumption of harmful bacteria in food or water, a course of antibiotics may be necessary for combating the problem. Less often, a viral infection can result in the previously mentioned symptoms. In most of these cases, the virus must simply run its course. In rare instances, however, antiviral drugs may be prescribed.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Most experts recommend changing dietary habits in order to prevent intestinal gas and its associated symptoms. Prevention and prophylaxis can include adequate daily intake of soluble fiber, cooking vegetables and whole grains thoroughly, soaking beans overnight and consuming plenty of water to avoid constipation.

For some people, [[digestive enzymes] that break down protein, fat, carbohydrates and sugars can be immensely helpful. Certain spices, like turmeric, ginger, anise, licorice, thyme, mint, rosemary, black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg, can also help prevent or relieve gas and bloating. These are known as carminativs and they are widely used throughout various parts of the world as natural and effective gas remedies. Electrolytes, such as potassium, sodium and magnesium, can also be beneficial in preventing gas as these minerals are important for maintaining proper hydration and intestinal motility.

In addition, simple avoidance can help people prevent chronic intestinal gas. Many individuals report considerable improvements in their condition by avoiding fermented foods, gas-promoting fruits like bananas, and beans, leafy greens or other foods high in insoluble fiber. Cooking all fruits and vegetables prior to consumption may also help since they are broken down more easily by the body.