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Embarrassing Conditions

Managing embarrassing symptoms -- burping, intestinal gas, and the growling stomach --- may be as simple as changing your diet.

Eating the Air continued...

Edmundowicz tells WebMD that people with severe heartburn are also likely to swallow air. The natural reaction to the backwash of stomach acid into the esophagus is to swallow in order to force the acid back down. The more you swallow, the more air gets into your stomach.

Some people develop an unconscious nervous habit of swallowing. "There are a lot of closet air swallowers out there who don't realize that they're doing it," says Wilcox.

Bacterial Fermentation

Some of the air that you swallow goes through the intestinal tract and out the other end. But the major source of intestinal gas derives from the action of harmless, naturally occurring bacteria in your intestine.

Gas is a by-product of bacterial breakdown of undigested food that makes its way to the large intestine. Most of the gas is hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and, in about one-third of people, methane. The signature stink of intestinal gas comes from sulfur.

The volume of intestinal gas is directly related to the amount of undigested food that goes into the large intestine. If you're eating things that can't be absorbed by the small intestine, or if your small intestine can't absorb certain foods normally, the bacteria in the large intestine will pick up the slack and manufacture more gas in the process.

The Growling Stomach

Intestinal gas can also cause the familiar sounds of the "growling stomach," a term that's actually a misnomer, says Munsey Wheby, MD, president of the American College of Physicians.

"It's not usually the stomach making the noise," says Wheby, who is also senior associate dean and a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. "Instead, it's caused by the intestines as they contract."

Everyone knows that a growling "stomach" can mean that you're hungry. But the noise often stems from the movement of air through the intestines, whether there's food there or not. So if you've been swallowing a lot of air, or if you've been eating things that your small intestine can't digest, you may hear some grumbling, or even a whole symphony of bizarre and embarrassing noises.

But like burping and flatulence, occasional growling from the intestines isn't anything to worry about, says Edmundowicz.

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