What is gas or a gassy stomach?
Gas is a build-up of air in the digestive tract. It develops when you swallow air, while you eat, drink, or chew gum, or when you feel anxious. It’s also produced in the intestines when your body breaks down the food you eat.
Gas (flatus) is found throughout the entire digestive tract, from the esophagus to the stomach to the intestines. Everyone experiences gas and releases it by belching (burping) or passing gas rectally (farting). Healthy people can pass gas up to 25 times a day. The buildup can lead to bloating and pain.
Flatus is mostly made up of nitrogen. It also contains oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and methane. It often contains sulfur, which causes the unpleasant odor.
Certain foods produce more gas than others, like beans and lactose (a natural sugar in milk). Gas can also be caused by an imbalance in the amount of good and bad bacteria in your gut or by other gastrointestinal (GI) diseases, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
Foods that cause gas
Gas is from food being digested and metabolized (processed) by bacteria.
Lactose intolerance can cause a lot of painful gas and other symptoms. People who are lactose intolerant don’t have enough of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose in the gut so it can be absorbed. Instead, the lactose builds up in the colon and causes gas, bloating, diarrhea, and cramping.
You can manage your symptoms by avoiding dairy products, like milk, cheese, and ice cream. (You may want to figure out which dairy products cause your most severe symptoms.) Taking lactase supplements whenever you eat dairy may also help.
As you get older, it is possible to stop producing the enzyme that breaks down lactose in dairy products—even if you never had a problem with milk before. It’s more common in people of African, Hispanic, and Asian populations. —Dr. Judy Kim
High FODMAP Diet
Certain foods increase gas, particularly those high in FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols). These are carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed in the intestine.
Foods high in FODMAPs include beans, onions, garlic, brussels sprouts, and wheat. Fruits high in fructose like apples, pears, peaches, mangoes, and watermelon are also high FODMAP foods. Sorbitol, a common artificial sweetener, is also a FODMAP.
Medical conditions that cause gas
Irritable bowel syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic GI disorder that causes abdominal pain and changes in bowel movements (diarrhea or constipation or both).
Almost all people with IBS complain of gas or bloating. But studies have shown that they do not actually produce more gas. Instead, people with IBS may have increased sensitivity to normal amounts of gas, or gas doesn’t move through the intestine in the right way, according to a study in Gastroenterology & Hepatology. But it still helps to reduce the amount of foods you eat that are known to cause gas.
There are many ways to treat IBS, including making changes to your diet and trying medications like fiber supplements, antidiarrheals or laxatives, and certain types of antidepressants.
Small intestinal bowel overgrowth (SIBO) is when there’s an abnormal increase in the bacteria that live in your small intestine. Normally, much higher amounts of bacteria live in the large intestine than in the small intestine. When there’s an imbalance of bacteria in the small intestine, it can lead to too much gas and symptoms like bloating or flatulence.
SIBO can be diagnosed using a carbohydrate breath test. Treatment may include dietary changes, nutritional supplements, and antibiotics to control bacterial overgrowth.
Functional belching disorder
Functional belching disorder is a harmless disorder that causes frequent belching (similar to burping). It may be caused by swallowing too much air. People with functional belching disorder are encouraged to stop habits that cause this, such as drinking carbonated drinks, chewing gum, and smoking.
Constipation is when you have difficulty having a bowel movement or have fewer than three bowel movements per week. It’s a very common problem and can cause gassiness and bloating. Treatment may include increasing fiber intake or taking laxatives.
Celiac disease affects the small intestines and is caused by an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. People with celiac disease may have increased gas and bloating because food may be poorly digested in the small intestine. Other symptoms include diarrhea, weight loss, and vitamin deficiencies.
If you think your gassiness is severe, ask your doctor if you should be tested for small intestinal bowel overgrowth or celiac disease. —Dr. Kim
Gas in babies
Babies pass gas often during the day as a normal part of digesting food. But it can be painful and cause them to be fussy or cry. Certain foods can cause gas, like juices that the baby cannot absorb well.
If a baby is breastfed, the breast milk may contain dairy products that the baby cannot digest. If a baby is fed formula, the formula may have to be changed to another type. Simethicone drops (Gas-X) may help with any discomfort.
When to see a doctor
You should see a doctor if gas and symptoms such as cramps and bloating are becoming a problem and interfering with your daily life. A doctor may be able to help diagnose other underlying conditions, like celiac disease or small intestinal bowel overgrowth. A doctor can also help create a specific treatment plan to ease your symptoms. If your pain typically improves when you pass gas or take over-the-counter medications like Gas-X, you probably don’t need to see a doctor immediately.
You should see a doctor as soon as possible if you notice worsening diarrhea or constipation, blood in your stool, weight loss, or if you have a family history of GI cancers.
Go to the ER if you have severe gas pain and can’t pass gas or stool for several hours, which may be a sign of a blockage in the GI tract.
Diet is a common reason for increased gassiness. Try to keep a food journal and identify which types of food may be causing symptoms. Dairy is a common trigger. —Dr. Kim
How to get rid of gas
There are many treatments that may help get rid of gas:
Making changes to your diet can help reduce gas and related symptoms like bloating and diarrhea.
- Avoid foods high in FODMAPs.
- Avoid dairy products that contain lactose like milk, cheese, and ice cream, or take an over-the-counter lactase enzyme (Lactaid) before eating these foods.
- Avoid chewing gum and drinking carbonated beverages.
- Consider seeing a dietician, who can help you identify specific trigger foods so you don’t have to avoid entire food groups.
Exercising can help decrease gassiness. A study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that gentle physical exercise helped people get rid of gas and reduced bloating. Also, lying down can worsen gas build-up, so sitting up during the day may also help improve symptoms.
Some over-the-counter medications, which you can buy at a drugstore or online without a prescription, that may help include:
- Probiotics. These can help bring back the right balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut, decreasing gas and bloating.
- Simethicone. Found in products such as Gas-X and Mylanta, simethicone treats symptoms of gas like cramps, fullness, and bloating.
- Peppermint oil. This natural remedy may help relieve gassiness and other digestive problems.
Fiber supplements. If you have irregular bowel movements, products like Citrucel or Metamucil may help with symptoms.
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