The Truth About Gas

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on October 06, 2016
3 min read

Though the words “burp” and “fart” make most kids giggle, adults usually get shy when they get gassy and pretend that it never happened. But sometimes, it’s hard to ignore.

Many people don’t know much about intestinal gas, even though we all have it. It’s time to take the air out of some of the myths behind flatulence and belching.

Your body makes gas from two different places.

First, there is the air you swallow. When you breathe, when you gulp your food, when you drink carbonated beverages, even when you chew gum, your body takes in oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide.

“Most of this gas, you belch,” says Lawrence Kim, MD. “If you don’t belch it, it can go down into your digestive system and cause flatulence or indigestion.”

You can thank your intestines for the other type. When you eat, you digest and absorb nutrients from the food. Helpful“Good” bacteria that live in your gut break down anything that’s left over. That process creates gas that usually escapes as a fart.

Most gas is odorless. But certain kinds of foods, for instance those that contain sulfur, can make it smelly. Some bacteria also make methane or hydrogen sulfide that can add a distinctive odor.

Remember the grade-school rhymes about beans? Turns out, the kids and their playground songs were right.

Some foods, including beans, tend to cause gas because “our bodies are not well equipped to digest them,” Kim says. Those foods include:

  • Beans and lentils
  • Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and onions
  • Whole-grain foods such as cereals, breads, and crackers
  • Sugars found in fruit and juices, but also in processed foods containing high-fructose corn syrup
  • Sugars and some artificial sweeteners found in diet drinks and foods. Sorbitol is super gassy and is found in both.

You can also get gassy if you can’t tolerate certain things in your diet, such as the lactose in dairy products, says James Leavitt, MD.

Fruits, veggies, and whole grains are great for you, so you should still eat them. Just notice if they affect you.

It happens to just about everyone 10 to 20 times a day, Leavitt says.

Most people who complain of these kind of problems don’t actually have more than normal. “People come and see us and say, ‘I have a lot of gas,’” Leavitt says. “But X-rays don’t actually show more gas. Some people are farting more often but not necessarily producing more. It means their perception of gas is different.”

In mild cases, it’s often a matter of how active or sensitive their digestive system is, rather than the amount it makes. While men and women make about as much, women seem to report symptoms more often.

On its own, intestinal gas isn’t dangerous, even if you hold it in, Leavitt says. But if you pass gas 50 times a day and also have other symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, bloating, or blood or fat in your stool, you may need to see a doctor.

If gas makes you physically -- or socially -- uneasy, you can do a few things to lessen the blow:

  • Chew less gum.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Avoid carbonated drinks.
  • Limit artificial sweeteners.
  • Eat less broccoli, beans, and cabbage.
  • Limit dairy, especially if you are lactose intolerant.
  • Exercise may help.

There isn’t a cure-all medicine, but Kim says some over-the-counter meds can help:

  • Alpha-galactosidase (Beano) is an enzyme that breaks down sugars found in vegetables and grains.
  • Lactase (Lactaid, Surelac) is an enzyme that digests lactose if you can’t tolerate dairy.
  • Simethicone (Gas-X, Mytab, Phazyme) helps break down gas bubbles in the gut.