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We all fart. Here's why, and when to be worried about excessive flatulence.

Flatulence, passing wind, passing gas, "flatus", or simply farts: we all know what they sound like and what they smell like. What are they, though? Why do certain foods cause flatulence, how much gas is too much, and what can you do if you think you are dealing with excessive flatulence? 

Why We Fart

Everyone farts. The British NHS says we pass wind an average of 15 times over a 24 hour period, something that amounts to about 600 ml worth of gas. Because not all farts have the same composition, not all of them smell. And because we often pass wind while we're asleep, we may not even be aware that we're doing it.

Why do we fart? There are two reasons:

  • The air we swallow when we eat, drink (especially carbonated beverages), or even just swallow saliva has got to come out somehow. If you don't burp, you'll fart. Smoking, chewing gum, not chewing your food properly or having ill-fitting dentures can lead to an excessive ingestion of air.
  • Your digestive system is home to over 700 different species of bacteria. These bacteria are pretty essential within the human digestive system, and they'll process the foods we can't. Like us, they produce byproducts when they digest foods. In their case, it's gas — which, once again, has to come out.

The average fat willl contain nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen, in varying degrees. They can also contain compounds that cause your gas to smell, notably hydrogen sulfide gas, the same stuff that makes rotten eggs smell terrible, a bit of ammonia, and tiny particles of feces.

Why Do Some Foods Make You Fart?

Carbonated drinks lead to flatulence because they contain lots of air. We also take in air when we eat anything at all. Any air that isn't expelled by burping enters the digestive system, where it will leave the body in the form of flatulence. That's completely normal, and there's nothing you can do about it. 
 
As for "gassy foods", carbohydrates lead to special trouble. These foods include ones we all know to cause flatulence: beans, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, raisins, arthichokes, lentils, pulses, Brussels sprouts, and onions. 
 
They lead to flatulence because they contain molecules that are too large to be absorbed by the small intestine, namely oligosaccharides like stachyose and raffinose. Beans would require the alpha-galactosidase enzyme to fully digest, and that's something we simply don't have. Unable to break these molecules down, the body passes them onto the large intestine fully intact. There, they encounter the bacterial colonies we mentioned earlier. What we can't digest, they can. The bacteria that thrive on oligosaccharides are going to increase in number after you eat meals rich in this form of sugar. Nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen are all byproducts of the digestive process, in which bacteria play an integral role.
 
Foods that are full of unrefined fiber and processed foods that contain sorbitol or fructose also lead to more gas than normal.

Can You Reduce The Flatulence Caused By 'Gassy Foods'?

Yes, you can. Soak dried beans overnight, and you'll reduce the oligosaccharides that your digestive system has trouble with. Believe it or not, you can also buy and use special enzyme supplements that will reduce flatulence. They include bromelain tablets, papain tablets, and Lactaid.
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