By Joy Stephenson-Laws, J.D., Founder
Flatulence and Your Health
Sometimes, people who start a vegan, or even a primarily plant-based diet complain of increased flatulence (known more commonly as “passing gas”). Is this something to be concerned about?
Typically this topic is not discussed at the dinner table. And truth be told, many of us actually wonder what is “normal” when it comes to this most common bodily occurrence.
Before discussing what is considered “normal” and what it can tell us about our health, let’s look at what flatulence is, why it happens and how often it happens throughout a typical day.
What is flatulence and why does it happen?
Flatulence is usually your body’s way of telling you that your digestive system is working exactly as it should. It occurs as a byproduct of the digestive process.
We swallow air when we chew gum, eat or drink (especially carbonated beverages). This swallowed air – also known as exogenous air in technical terms – is basically oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. There is also endogenous gas – a byproduct of the bacteria in our gut, known as the gut microbiome, breaking down the food we eat that our stomachs and small intestines could not digest. These are usually carbohydrates. This gas is primarily hydrogen but also can include methane (yes, it is flammable) as well as hydrogen sulfide (which can result in our gas smelling bad).
Since all this accumulating gas needs to leave our bodies, most of us pass gas between 12 and 25 times a day (some gas is also expelled when we burp). This means we could be expelling gas on an average of once per hour. The reason we probably don’t notice that level of frequency is because it tends to happen without making any noise or giving us any sensation. You also may be surprised to learn that 99 percent of the time, flatulence has no discernible odor or smell. And if you want to impress people with your knowledge of trivia, it has been reported that intestinal gas can travel at about 10 feet per second (which is almost 7 miles an hour) as it is expelled.
With this understanding of what causes flatulence, it should not be at all surprising that moving to a vegan or a primarily plant-based diet, especially if it includes a lot of cruciferous veggies, would increase it. Plant-based foods are not as easy to digest as simple carbohydrates and it takes our bodies a little while to get used to this change to healthier eating.
One study, showed a seven-fold increase in flatulence frequency after a diet switch along with an increase of about 50 percent in the amount of gas expelled with each occurrence.
The research suggests these changes may be an indication this diet change is promoting a healthier gut microbiome, which brings a variety of health benefits. These may include better immunity, healthier weight, lower risk of developing depression, better ability to absorb nutrients from food and even a lower risk of developing cancer.
We can better manage flatulence
If you are recently transitioning to a healthier plant-based diet, there are some things you can do to better manage any increased flatulence you experience while your body adjusts to the change.
- Gradually make the transition from your prior way of eating to your new one. For example, I would not suggest switching over night from a diet of fast food and sugar to one of mostly fruits and vegetables.
- Keep in mind that one plant-based food that may cause flatulence in one person may not affect another. It’s a very personal thing!
- Know which plant-based foods are harder to digest – and potentially cause more initial flatulence. Consume these foods in moderation. These hard to digest foods may include broccoli, beans, nuts, root vegetables, potatoes, asparagus, cucumbers, carrots, prunes, cabbage, apples, and Brussels sprouts.
- If you are finding your flatulence to be more aromatic after the diet switch, limit eating foods with a higher sulfur content such as garlic, onions, and cauliflower as well as wine and beer.
- Artificial sweeteners and dairy products may also increase flatulence.
- Some prescription and over-the-counter medications such as statins, antacids, laxatives, and ibuprofen may cause flatulence.
Flatulence may also be a health warning
You should call a competent healthcare professional if you have sudden changes in how often you are passing gas, how much you are expelling, there is more odor than before, if it is causing you pain, or is accompanied by vomiting, weight loss, fever, or diarrhea, since these may be an indication of a medical condition. These conditions include:
- Celiac disease
- Lactose intolerance
- Abdominal hernia
- Food poisoning
- Food allergies
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Dumping syndrome (when food empties too quickly from your stomach)
- Intestinal blockage
- Crohn’s disease
How to be proactive
If you have bouts of flatulence linked to your dietary or lifestyle habits, you can readily take steps to address them. The first thing is to start eliminating from your diet, one at a time, foods that are known to promote flatulence and see if that makes any difference. If eliminating certain food(s) from your diet helps, then you know what dietary changes you need to make.
You can also add foods that are easier to digest, such as citrus fruits, rice, lettuce, bananas, grapes, and yogurt (assuming you are not lactose intolerant). Other foods that are less prone to increase flatulence include eggs, fish, tomatoes, zucchini, avocado and olives.
Other steps you can take include eating more slowly, eating smaller meals throughout the day rather than a few larger ones. And be sure to exercise since this has been shown to help reduce gas. Taking probiotics may also help you manage your flatulence. If you smoke, it is important that you quit to reduce the amount of air you swallow and since smoking can irritate the digestive system.
Finally, you might consider taking a GI Effects test. This test not only provides insight into the bacteria of your digestive system, but also identifies parasites, assesses levels of digestive and absorptive functions, as well as potential issues with gut inflammation and immunity. Anyone with concerns regarding their digestive system should probably start here.
Enjoy your healthy life!
The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses, and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products, and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.