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Embarrassing Conditions

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

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.

What Foods Cause Gas?

Obviously, some foods cause more gas than others. As any schoolboy will tell you, the most notorious offender is baked beans, but there are plenty of others, including grains (for instance, the word pumpernickel is believed to stem from Middle German and mean, roughly, "goblin that breaks wind").

Any food that is high in soluble fiber, for instance, is only broken down by bacteria in the large intestine, so that can mean more gas. Foods that may cause gas include:

  • Vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, onions, artichokes, and asparagus
  • Beans
  • Fruits such as apples, pears, and peaches
  • Whole grains, such as whole wheat and bran
  • Sodas and fruit drinks
  • Foods with sorbitol, often used as a sweetener in sugar-free gums and candies

As you may have noticed, many of those foods are the bedrock of healthy diets.

"People sometimes do get confused when they find out that a healthy high-fiber diet with lots of fruits and vegetables can cause excess gas symptoms," says Edmundowicz.

Fruits, vegetables, and grains are important for digestion in other ways, so if you have gas, be cautious when trying to eliminate healthy foods from your diet. You may just need to eat a little less to ease your symptoms.

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