Flatulence & Bloating
A fart (flatus) is made up of several gases (hydrogen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and the flammable and smelly methane). A certain amount of flatulence is normal (between 200–2 400 ml daily). A source of hilarity among small boys, excess flatulence can be a social encumbrance. Two-thirds of the wind you expel is formed by bacteria in the bowel, while the rest is made up of air that you swallow. Excess gas in the abdomen causes bloating. And yes, men do fart more than women.
- Abdominal bloating or distension.
- Cramping or colic.
What causes it?
- Poor eating habits can contribute to bloating and flatulence.
- Not chewing your food adequately. The first stage of digestion occurs in the mouth, and teeth play an important role in grinding food into smaller bits. When you fail to chew properly, the big bits will pose a challenge further down the digestive tubing. Undigested bits are met by an enthusiastic crowd of microflora in the large bowel, who will consume what you have not digested – and who will thank you with flatulence.
Horace Fletcher, an American obsessed with mastication in the 1930s, defined a proper chew as 32 times with each mouthful: one chew for every tooth. Obviously, this leaves little time for living between mealtimes! In the 21st century, ten thorough chews per mouthful is generally adequate.
- Chewing with your mouth open. Your mother was right, it is rude, but chewing with your mouth agape also allows excess air into the digestive tract.
- Eating standing up or eating when you are walking.
- Mouth breathers, as opposed to nose breathers, often suffer excessive wind. A key sign is waking up with a bloated abdomen. Mouth breathers are often forced into this situation due to sinus or nasal congestion (see Sinusitis on page 00). Some people become air-gulpers when stressed.
- Chewing gum. When you start to chew anything, the digestive system gears up a notch, secreting digestive juices in expectation of food soon coming down the line. Chewing gum sends mixed messages and is a cause of digestive bewilderment, gas and bloating. Chewing gum immediately after a meal is fine.
- Low stomach acid, or hypochlorydria, is a common affliction involving less than optimum hydrochloric acid, which is so important for digestion in the stomach. Signs and symptoms which may indicate low stomach acid include bloating, burping, flatulence, diarrhoea, constipation, feeling of overfullness after eating, food allergies, nausea after nutritional supplements, burping after taking oil-filled capsules (such as vitamin E and fish oil), peeling and weak fingernails, dilated blood vessels around the nose, iron deficiency, chronic fungal conditions and undigested food in the stool.
- Antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bacteria, including some of the resident good bugs in the digestive system, leaving some smelly customers behind. The wrong microbiotic crowd in the digestive tract is known as dysbiosis.
- Constipation. A slow transit time through the bowel causes a festering of gas-producing bacteria.
- Candida albicans. An overgrowth of this fungus is a common cause of bloating and flatulence.
- Food intolerance can also cause bloating and flatulence. One of the more common examples is lactose intolerance, where there are insufficient quantities of the enzyme lactase. The undigested lactose meanders to the lower bowel where bacteria will digest it and create wind. The other food intolerance that may cause bloating and flatulence is fructose malabsorption.
- Stress can muck around with your digestive system.
- Sitting still for too long. Get up and move.
- Misalignment of your vertebral column can affect the nerves that supply the digestive tract.
What to do
My grandfather used to say, ‘Wherever you may be, let the air go free’, and certainly it is healthier to do so rather than try to retain the air. However, the following recommendations will hopefully relieve the problem of excess flatus.
- Ban sugar. Bacteria (and yeast) in the gut ferment sugar into gas.
- Are you chewing your food sufficiently? Are you paying attention to each mouthful? Fast chewers are bred, not born. Here are a few hints if you find yourself slipping back into your hasty habits.
- Remind yourself to chew before sitting down to eat.
- Don’t eat while reading or watching TV.
- Write CHEW on a piece of paper and fix it to the fridge or wall.
- Put your knife, fork or hands down between each mouthful.
- Probiotic foods such as yoghurt, miso, sauerkraut, kefir, natto, tempeh and kimchi will introduce beneficial bacteria into the digestive tract.
- Avoid high-fructose foods for one week to see if this makes a difference.
- Until your digestion improves, avoid the brassicas (including broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage) and legumes – both can be difficult to digest. After 2 or 3 weeks, introduce these nutritious foods slowly, perhaps 2 small servings a week.
- Increase bitter foods including radicchio, kale, grapefruit and cress.
- If you think you may have an overgrowth of candida albicans, in addition to avoiding sugar, restrict yeasts from your diet and follow the recommendations for the candida albicans, apple cider vinegar and honey in hot water is an old-fashioned remedy for improving digestion. Try 2 teaspoons of vinegar and 1 teaspoon of raw honey. Drink a cup of this each morning soon after you wake.
- Take a tablet containing digestive enzymes with each meal. In addition, and sometimes in the same tablet, take some betaine hydrochloride to boost the digestive power of the stomach.
- Herbal bitters can improve stomach-acid production and will alleviate bloating and flatulence. Try 1 teaspoon in water before main meals (see below).
- Take a strong probiotic supplement each morning.
- Stress management. If you feel your bloating and flatulence increase when you are stressed, learn how to meditate or try some yoga.
- Exercise. At least outside, no-one will notice if you fart.
- See an osteopath or chiropractor if you think your back needs adjusting, as your sore back and bloated tummy could be connected.
The Bitterer the Betterer
James Green, an American herbalist said, ‘the mistake of eliminating the bitter flavour from our daily experience is like eliminating one of the colours of the rainbow’. Unfortunately, in Australia, bitter foods are thin on the ground. Grapefruit, chicory, radicchio, endives, cress, olives, hops (say yeah for the cleansing ale) and coffee are the only bitter foods that spring to mind. In England, a salad made from bitter lettuce leaves was traditionally eaten before the meal, rather than with it as we do today. Bitter herbs form the basis of European digestifs and aperitifs such as Campari and good old Angostura bitters. In the interest of harmony and health, Chinese cuisine often includes a bitter element such as bitter melon, said to relieve the body of internal heat.
Taste buds are bundles of nerve endings, located all over the tongue. Their job is to interpret tastes from the chemicals in food, revealing whether food is yuk or yum, and more specifically sweet, salty, bitter or sour. Bitter buds are found at the back of the tongue, sour to either side, sweet at the tip and salty in-between. Bitter taste buds connect to the vagus nerve, a nerve that stimulates the functioning of the digestive organs, stomach, pancreas, gall bladder and intestine. One of the main tenets of natural therapies is to improve digestion, and stimulating the vagus nerve will do this – and explains why bitter herbs have been prescribed since Hippocrates.
Symptoms of a digestive system crying out for bitters include bloating, burping, flatulence and constipation. These symptoms in particular indicate low stomach-acid production. Other signs include peeling fingernails, dry lips and increased susceptibility to parasitic and fungal infections and a tendency to food poisoning (gastro). As we age, stomach-acid production tends to drop. This inhibits the absorption of nutrients, especially protein, iron and B12.
Tickling the tastebuds with foul-tasting herbal concoctions is a favourite sport among herbalists. The main bitter herbs include gentian, goldenseal, wormwood, St. Mary’s thistle and dandelion root. The idea is to taste the bitterness. The bitterer, the better! A teaspoon of herbal bitters in a wineglass of water sipped before dinner will train your digestive system into healthier habits. Bitters enhance your appetite, but will not cause you to overeat.
Note: People with stomach ulcers or women who are pregnant should not take herbal bitters.
Blend the following oils with 20 ml of sweet almond oil and you will have a fantastic blend possessing antispasmodic, digestive, stomachic, carminative and therapeutic properties. Excellent for treating heartburn, indigestion and flatulence, use as an abdominal massage or warm compress.
- 1 drop of cinnamon leaf oil
- 5 drops of orange mandarin oil – antispasmodic, carminative, digestive, sedative, tonic
- 2 drops of cardamom oil – antispasmodic, carminative, digestive, stomachic
- 2 drops of peppermint spearmint oil – local anaesthetic, antispasmodic, carminative, digestive, stomachic tonic
At a glance
- Restrict sugar from your diet. This alone can reduce your bloating and flatulence by a significant degree.
- Chew your food well. Don’t allow partially digested food to travel to the lower bowel where bacteria will feast on it, creating gas.
- Add 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar and 1 teaspoon of raw honey to a cup of hot water and drink first thing each morning.
- With each meal, take a digestive enzyme tablet.
- Each morning, take a strong probiotic supplement to restore your bowel microflora.
- Exercise regularly.