What can I do to stop passing gas?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

All my adult life I’ve had a tendency to pass a lot of gas. It’s unpleasant for me and for others. What can I do about it?

DEAR READER:

All human beings pass gas to some extent. That’s because all of us have gas (mostly swallowed air) in the digestive tract. Along with the air you swallow, the bacteria that live in your gut also produce gas — up to two quarts a day.

You may have noticed that this air moves in your digestive tract. You can feel it, and you can sometimes hear it. It’s not really your stomach that is “growling”: It’s your gut gas gurgling. Eventually the air you swallow and the gas your gut bacteria make need to be expelled to prevent painful stretching of the stomach and intestine.

There’s nothing you can do to prevent passing gas (flatulence) completely. But here are some tips to help you reduce the amount you pass.

In most people, gas-producing foods are responsible for much of a person’s flatulence. So the first step is to figure out which foods make you gassy and avoid them. Foods that are more likely to cause gas include:

  • beans, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and peas;
  • oat bran and other high-fiber foods;
  • carbonated beverages;
  • foods containing sorbitol (an artificial sweetener);
  • fructose, a natural sugar present in many fruits (including prunes, pears, grapes, dates and figs) and in many sweeteners;
  • lactulose, another natural sugar present in many fruits (including apricots, peaches, pears, plums, prunes, gooseberries, grapes, raisins, raspberries and strawberries);
  • lactose, a sugar present in milk, custard, yogurt and ice cream;
  • fried and fatty foods, because they cause the stomach to empty more slowly, allowing gas to build up.

Certain medicines also slow down the stomach and can cause more problems with gas. Common examples are antihistamines and calcium channel blockers.

A drastic reduction in dietary sugars and some cutback in refined starches and wheat flour may also help. It is these sugars and starches that bacteria turn into gas.

Make sure to eat and drink slowly — speed-eating makes you swallow more air.

A product called Beano may help metabolize difficult-to-digest complex carbohydrates when taken before meals.

Over-the-counter preparations containing the enzymes lipase, trypsin and amylase may reduce gassy emissions.

Activated charcoal absorbs gas and may help cut down on your gassiness. Occasional use is not harmful.

Pepto-Bismol may reduce the odor of your gas.

Don’t completely abandon the fruits I mentioned; they are healthful for you. A period of trial and error may help you identify the foods that lead to fewer problems with gas when you stop eating them.