Answers to All Your Questions About Flatulence
My 10-year-old could hardly contain himself. Between giggles, he told me about a tornado drill he had at school this past week. The kids sat silently in the school hallway with hard-cover books over their head, wondering in their young minds what an actual tornado would be like. Suddenly, out of the deadening silence arose a sound... BRRROP!
Farts, gas, flatulence, whatever you want to call these anal emissions, are a fact of life. For my youthful, mildly mature, and unseasoned son, they are a source of constant entertainment and never-ending fascination. In honor of my son's preoccupation with flatulence, I'd like to break down the science of the fart and lay out some of the treatment options for excessive flatulence.
Intestinal gas is both produced in and transferred through the G.I. tract. In other words we both manufacture gas and swallow it. The majority of flatulence comes as a result of swallowed air, unchanged in composition from when it is swallowed. However, liquid and solid food can turn to gas form during the fermentation and digestion process run by bacteria.
In all, the average adult human passes about seven liters of gas with around 14 or so farts per day (men more than women, although there may be some survey bias there).
Flatulence comes in different forms. Sometimes, it's announced loudly, at others it's passed silently. The physics behind this is much the same as playing a trumpet. Sound is modulated by volume or air and aperture (opening). The smaller the aperture, the higher the pitch, due to pressurized, turbulent flow. The more air passing at higher pressure, the louder the sound. If there is no turbulence, the flow is said to be laminar. In a laminar flow situation, there is no turbulence and no sound.
So, anal tone and volume of passed gas modulate whether there will be sound and other auditory characteristics. This is where the science behind the "silent but deadly" gas plays in. Swallowed air is more voluminous and maintains the same composition as when it was swallowed. Therefore, it is more prone to be loud and less offensive. Gas that is created from fermentation and digestion, however, is more foul and less voluminous, often passing silently and... well, you know.
Factors in Flatulence
Some people swallow more air than others. For instance, talking while eating or eating hastily leads to more swallowed air. Also, drinking a lot of carbonated beverages leads to more swallowed air in all those little bubbles.
Certain foods yield more gas production than others. Some vegetables contain sugars (polysaccharides) that are poorly broken down by our digestive enzymes. When they hit the bacteria-laden intestines, however, fermentation and gas production occur. This is common with beans, cauliflower, broccoli, peppers, turnips, and cucumbers, among other examples.
Fatty meat also causes gas production through a similar process. Digested animal product gas, however, is more foul than plant-based gas production. The common foul-odored gasses produced are methane and hydrogen sulfide. Yes, these gasses are flammable.
When babies have gas, the culprit is most often swallowed air during the feeding process. Getting a good burp can prevent some of that air passing through the stomach into the intestines. Contrary to common thought, eating gas-producing foods does not cause the baby to have gas via the breast milk. Rarely, gas production and fussiness in a baby is due to a food sensitivity, such as cow's milk protein.
Treatment and Prevention
Using care when eating to keep your mouth closed and take your time will prevent excessive gas, as will avoiding sodas and other carbonated beverages. Cutting down on gas-producing foods can help but this can make for a bland eating experience.
Beano and other similar products provide enzymes that enhance the breakdown of these polysaccharides so that they don't cause gas when exposed to bacterial digestion and fermentation. Call it better living through chemistry. The use of probiotics to curb gas production is speculative. While the seeding of the intestinal tract with "friendlier" bacteria would logically cause more predictable and reasonable gas production, no data exists to make it factual.
We all pass gas. Some people pass more than others. To some, the physics and physiology of flatulence is entertaining, to others, disgusting. Certain measures can help to cut down on gas production if the amount is unreasonable.
Remember, to error is human. To fart is too.
Live, and live well.