The problem of excessive intestinal gas is a very common one. It is sometimes helpful to remember that this is not a malady known to have killed anyone, or even to have caused significant injury (except in some very rare instances to be recounted below).
The intestinal gas to which this article refers is gas in the lower intestine, or colon. This gas is frequently experienced as bloating, fullness, or cramping, and even more frequently as flatus (gas passed per rectum, sometimes referred to as "farts"). Gas in the stomach, experienced as burps or belches, is almost always the result of swallowing air. Virtually NONE of the lower intestinal gas is swallowed air; it is all produced in the colon, by the action of bacteria on undigested bowel contents. This gas consists primarily of the odorless gas carbon dioxide. Small amounts of other gasses are present, such as methane and hydrogen sulfide. The unpleasant odor of intestinal gas is a result of the hydrogen sulfide or certain other compounds present in small but smelly quantities. These other compounds are mostly amines, produced by the degradation of proteins in the colon. The amines can be particularly offensive.
Because the colonic gas is produced by the action of bacteria on undigested material in the colon, the nature and quantity of the gas is largely dependent upon the contents of the diet. A diet which contains a lot of indigestible material, such as fiber, will result in more gas production. A healthy diet will contain abundant fiber, and therefore gas is to be considered a sign of a healthy diet. It has been shown that the average healthy young male will pass gas per rectum approximately thirteen times per day. A diet which includes more than the average amount of fiber will result in more gas production.
There are also some specific foods which when emphasized in the diet will cause more gas production. Milk is a frequent offender in this area, but not in all individuals. There are some peoples who genetically tend to lack the enzyme which digests the milk sugar, lactose. This enzyme deficiency is particularly common in those who descend from African or Mediterranean peoples. Those of primarily northern European stock experience this deficiency less commonly. When the undigested lactose in affected individuals reaches the colon, the result is fermentation by the bacteria there, resulting in excessive gas and frequently diarrhea. People who know they have an intolerance for milk should either avoid milk or treat themselves or their milk with an enzyme preparation which helps to digest the milk.
Beans have a reputation as a gas-producing food, and this reputation is well-deserved. There are carbohydrates in beans which cannot be digested by our enzymes, so they are left to be acted upon by the bacteria in the colon. The result is colonic gas. Scientists have been trying for some time to produce a "gasless" bean. If they are eventually successful, their accomplishment will be welcome to most of us.
To decrease the presence of foul-smelling amines in the intestine, it is advisable to decrease the amount of protein, primarily meat, in the diet. There is much excess meat and other protein in the average American diet anyway; it would be safe, and actually desirable to decrease this burden. Not only is it a burden on the body to convert all this unneeded protein to other substances and excrete the nitrogenous waste, but it is a burden on the world economy to produce all this excess protein.
To otherwise combat the objectionable odor of intestinal contents and the gas they produce, an intake of chlorophyll is recommended. Chlorophyll is found in green leaves, and the most popular and rich dietary source of chlorophyll is spinach. Other greens supply it; the greener the vegetable, the richer it is in chlorophyll. Some pale leaves such as iceberg lettuce provide very little. Iceberg lettuce provides very little in the way of nutrients, and is largely to be avoided. There are other sources of fiber which will simultaneously provide some other important nutrients, such as vitamin A or beta carotene, vitamin C, and others. Iceberg lettuce is possibly a good "filler" in the diet of those trying to lose weight - those who are already OVER-nourished.
As previously stated, intestinal gas is not usually dangerous, or a sign of poor health, but can be a source of some discomfort, and sometimes embarassment. Rarely, however, intestinal gas can be a true hazard. It must be remembered that methane is one of the gasses present in the colon, and that methane is combustible. This is why teenagers can "light their farts" as a way of entertaining one another. At least one case has been reported, however, of a badly burned youth whose pants ignited when he engaged in this practice. Explosions have occurred in surgery when electrocautery was employed through a sigmoidoscope or proctoscope. Careful bowel preparation can help to avoid this, as can insufflation with carbon dioxide gas (to displace oxygen) before electrocautery is employed. This is quite important, because injuries have been sustained in such explosions, both to the patients, who sometimes have sustained bowel perforations, and the surgeons, who were thrown across the operating room by the blast.
With this information about intestinal gas, it is hoped that you can improve your environment and the comfort and safety of yourself and those around you.
Copyright 1993, Wm. P. Alford, M.D.
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