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What causes gas in the digestive tract?

Bloating, belching and passing gas—it happens to everyone. So, what causes gas in the digestive tract, what’s normal and what’s not? Joel Garrison, D.O., a Piedmont family medicine physician, explains. 

Gas: What’s normal and what’s not?

First, it’s completely normal to have gas symptoms after a meal. This includes burping, passing gas and feeling bloated. But if your symptoms distract you from your everyday activities or are frequently uncomfortable, you may want to see your doctor. Here’s what experts consider normal:

  • Passing gas: Passing gas up to 25 a day is considered normal. However, if too much gas builds up in your digestive tract, you may experience flatulence. If you have flatulence, you may feel like you have to pass gas a lot and the gas may have an unpleasant smell.  

  • Burping: It’s normal to burp up to 30 times per day. You may burp more often if you swallow a lot of air while eating and drinking or consume carbonated beverages.

  • Bloating: Too much gas in the digestive tract can also cause bloating and distention. When you feel very full or notice some swelling in your abdominal area (belly), this is called bloating. If your abdomen swells and becomes larger than usual, this is called distention.

Causes of too much gas in the digestive tract

Dr. Garrison says there are two main causes of gas in the digestive tract:

  • Eating and drinking

  • The bacteria that live in the digestive tract

“When we swallow too much air or consume gas-producing foods and beverages, this can cause gas in the stomach and digestive tract,” he says. “This can lead to belching or flatulence because the gas has to go somewhere.” 

You may swallow too much air when you:

  • Smoke

  • Drink or eat too quickly

  • Drink carbonated beverages like soda and sparkling water

  • Chew gum

  • Suck on candy

  • Wear dentures that don’t fit properly

Another main cause of gas is the bacteria that live in the digestive tract.

“The bacteria in the gut can produce gas as a byproduct during the breakdown of food substances like fiber, sugar and starches,” says Dr. Garrison. “This occurs naturally.”

Excess gas can be especially prevalent in people with food intolerances who have trouble breaking down certain ingredients like lactose or long-chain carbohydrates.

How to reduce symptoms of gas

First, Dr. Garrison recommends eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. He also suggests including probiotic-rich foods and drinks in your diet—like Greek yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut or kombucha—or taking a probiotic supplement.

If you suspect certain foods are causing your symptoms, you could eliminate that food group for two weeks, then slowly reintroduce it to see if it’s the culprit. 

“Food triggers are different for everyone, so it may take some trial and error,” he says.

When to see a doctor for gas

“Gas isn’t usually a sign of serious health issue,” says Dr. Garrison. However, you should talk to your primary care provider if gas is accompanied by:

  • Constipation

  • Diarrhea

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Blood in your stool

  • Abdominal pain

Sometimes, excess gas is a sign of a condition like:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

  • Constipation

  • Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth

  • Lactose intolerance

  • Dietary fructose intolerance

  • Celiac disease

  • Blockage in the digestive tract

  • Gastroparesis

  • Intestinal pseudo-obstruction

“When gas becomes an issue with your quality of life and you can’t enjoy activities without feeling uncomfortable or in pain, it’s time to talk to a health care provider,” says Dr. Garrison.

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