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What Your Farts Can Tell You About Your Health

by Staff
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Illustration: Sam Woolley

Breaking wind. Cutting the cheese. Thunder from down under. I could go on, but whatever you call it, farting is a part of life. Farting is usually caused either by swallowing air, which has to get come out somehow, or by bacteria in your guts releasing gas during the digestive process. Everything animal (human or otherwise) farts, but how you fart can actually tell you something about your health.

“Passing gas is normal,” said Eamonn Quigley, a gastroenterologist at Houston Methodist Hospital. “Everyone passes flatulence on a daily basis. We pass more after meals, and we even pass through the night.” But what do your farts mean, and what might they be trying to tell you? For starters, “when a patient complains of excessive gas, one of the first things we look at is the patient’s diet,” Quigley said.

Bloating doesn’t mean more gas 

One important thing to understand about farting is that “there is a big distinction between flatulence and bloating,” according to Quigley. As a classic study showed, the sensation of bloating is not linked to excessive gas production. Instead, bloating tends to happen when gas gets trapped in the gastrointestinal system, causing it to build up and creating an uncomfortable feeling of pressure. In contrast, “flatulence is associated with producing more gas,” Quigley said.

Why you might be farting more than usual 

One of the main reasons why you might start farting more than usual is because of a change in your diet. Whether you’re eating more protein, more fiber, or more veggies, it can cause a short-term perturbation as the bacteria in your gut are spend more time than usual digesting your food. However, “we adapt, and our bacteria adapt,” Quigley said. “If you change your diet, you may have more flatulence in the short term.” So at least you won’t be farting forever once your gut gets used to that all-kale diet.

Some of the foods that can make you fart more than usual include different types of sugars; beans; dairy products; high-fiber fruits such as apples and pears; sugar alcohols; vegetables with a lot of fiber such as asparagus, cabbage or Brussels sprouts; and whole grains, which contain lots of fiber. For foods with a lot of fiber, “bacteria love them,” Quigley said. “They’re going to digest them, and in the process of digestion, they’re going to produce gas.”

Why your farts might be smellier than normal 

If your farts are smellier than normal, the culprit is usually a specific food you’ve, such as asparagus, coffee, eggs, or prunes. All are likely producers of fouler-than-usual gas, often due to the presence of hydrogen sulfide. Smelly farts can also be caused by meat byproducts and if there is feces in the rectum.

When to see a doctor about your farts

If you are experiencing discomfort or if you have unexplained, persistent changes in your farting behavior, that’s a sign you should see a doctor. Bloating can be associated with irritable bowel syndrome (other symptoms including changes in bowel movements, such as alternating between diarrhea and constipation, or pain that isn’t relieved by passing gas or having a bowel movement). In the future, healthcare tech may even make it possible to detect any changes in your health by monitoring the sounds of your farts. Until then, you’ll just have to settle for listening to (and smelling) your farts the old-fashioned way.

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