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As a result of processed foods, rising food intolerances and antibiotic use, we’re probably farting more than ever.
Think farting is trivial? Try telling me that last Thursday evening when I was out on a dinner date. She was beautiful, funny and engaging and the evening shimmered with seductive promise…
And then I needed to fart.
I dashed to the toilet where I joyfully let one rip. But soon after I returned to the table, the urge popped back. I struggled onwards, letting out little puffs of bottom air for the rest of dinner, wrestling with how I should cover up the evil little genies.
“Are you okay? You look in pain,” she asked, as I agonised over my midsection’s pulsings towards the inevitable, terrified that I’d be found out as the owner of the head-turning pong. “No, I’m great,” I grimaced, silently interrogating each item of food that had passed my lips earlier that day. Was it Miss Protein Bar on the bus? Mr Muesli in the kitchen or Colonel Beer at the bar? Whatever the culprit, I was carrying the rap.
The unhappy outcome was that my biohazardry sabotaged my chances of a second date. So no, flatulence is not trivial. Hilarious? Yes. Mortifying? In the wrong company, definitely. Unpleasant? When it’s not yours, absolutely. And, strangely, delightful when it is.
Farts 1, Man 0 was the result that set off my quest to show flatulence who’s boss. Which, it turns out, is what a mushrooming field of medicine is doing, too.
Not to put too fine a point on it, there has been an explosion of research on digestive health and the processes that produce your farts. The bad news: as a result of processed foods, rising food intolerances and antibiotic use, we’re probably farting more than ever. The good news: the research is unlocking the mysterious secrets of flatulence while debunking many of the myths
surrounding it (eg. beer bubbles don’t create farts, hurrah!).
The Bottom Line
Which is how I’ve found myself in the consulting rooms of Professor Terry Bolin at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, Australia. A gastroenterologist, he knows a staggering amount about flatulence. Gastroenterology refers to the branch of medicine that treats ailments of the stomach and bowels. The word derives from the Greek gaster, for belly, and enterology, for someone who really ought to wash his hands before making you a sandwich. Bolin is a leading expert on flatulence, the process by which the body rids the digestive system of unwanted gases and crowded theatre rows of the people sitting in them. This necessary by-product of the breakdown of fats, proteins, carbohydrates and whatever else you put in your mouth creates around 22 litres of gas a day. Thankfully, only two or so make it out as farts. The rest is metabolised or absorbed into the body, with a significant proportion actually coming out of your breath, meaning you really should be sucking on a Tic Tac if you’re blowing a stinky exhaust.“It’s given an answer to bad breath when dentists can’t find any cause within the mouth,” says Bolin. “We didn’t know that until recently, and there is a huge amount that we still don’t know,” he adds, steering to the heart of the fart: the colon. Aside from providing the source of flatulence, this organ is increasingly viewed as a microbiological mover-and-shaker that influences everything from weight gain and bloating, to asthma and eczema.
As wide as your forearm and as long as you are tall, this tube of concertinaed muscle and tissue contains one of the most populous ecosystems in the animal kingdom. Starting near the bottom of your right hip, the colon snakes up and under the stomach then back down to your left hip before zig-zagging to your bung hole. It’s jam-packed with a giant colony of around one hundred trillion bacteria (quite a thwack considering there are only ten trillion cells in the rest of the human body). This colony ferments what you feed it and, like an inbuilt compost bin, it fertilises your body with nutrients, as well as producing lots of gas. This is an important point, says Bolin, because your farts are actually your gut flora’s farts; something to consider when you’re revelling in your “own”. The fundamentals of healthy fart production go like this, explains Bolin. Starches, grains, complex carbohydrates, beans, vegetables and high-fibre foods (which are good because they provide extended energy and make sure your intestines don’t seize up like cement) create lots of hydrogen and methane. “They’re odourless but also flammable, which young boys impress their mates with,” says Bolin. If you ever try, methane burns blue and hydrogen yellow. The more you eat of these foods, the more volume your farts will have. The joker is hydrogen sulphide. Colourless, highly flammable and smelling of rotten eggs, H2S makes one hell of an entrance despite comprising just 1% of the volume of even the smelliest fart. The prime sources of sulphur in a healthy diet include onions, meats, eggs, garlic, dried fruits, cauliflower and brussels sprouts. But the secret perpetrators of the modern fart are increasing levels of preservatives, additives, sweeteners and processing, says Bolin. Foods ranging from two-minute noodles to cold meats to fruit juices have sulphur added as a preservative “and the more you eat, the more hydrogen sulphide you’ll produce”, says Bolin. Sweeteners can also unsettle the colon. “Even processed sugars in soft drinks have an impact,” says nutritionist Chris Lynton. Your gut flora is designed for a healthy diet and the more processed the food is, “the worse it is for digestive health”, adds Lynton. Want to rid your system of fart-brewing ammunition? The best place to start is with a concerted effort to eat fresher and less processed food. Not only is this healthier for you in general, it’ll also significantly improve your chances of being able to “trust your gut”.
If that doesn’t do the trick and your bed partner is still complaining about your endless duvet stink bombs, then keep a food/flatulence diary, advises Lynton. “Eat and drink what you want, but keep a daily track of what happens. Don’t forget to include coffee and alcohol and note how processed foods are,” says Lynton. “You’ll notice patterns pretty quickly and then you can simply regulate (or eliminate) the foods that affect you most.” Should your bottom remain particularly windy then it may be worth talking to your doctor. Research shows that changes in flatulence can be linked to significant digestive conditions such as colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, bloating, coeliac disease and others that can be identified and treated. “Overwhelmingly, flatulence is good for you,” says Bolin. But if your system isn’t feeling right, see a doctor.
The Life Probiotic
Your gut flora doesn’t only impact on how
often you sound the trumpet in your trousers. Research over the past two decades has revealed that gut health is critical to your overall health and that when fart-producing gut flora goes wrong, it contributes to a wide range of diseases, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, depression and chro-nic fatigue syndrome. It could also be bad news for your waistline. Poor gut health is increasingly being linked to the obesity epidemic, after researchers at Lund University in Sweden found that weak gut flora induces obesity in rats.Modern diets could be to blame for ruining the big bacterial party in your colon. Factors that weaken your gut flora include not eating enough fibre, increased levels of additives and processed food, as well as the growing saturation of antibiotics in our diets (more than 60% of antibiotics used in Australia are used in food production). These combine to destabilise your gut flora and can lead to inflammation of the colon (bloating) and increased flatulence. The best way to fight back and keep your gut happy is by topping up your levels of live bacteria with probiotic yoghurts and supplements. This is particularly necessary if you’ve had a big weekend on the drink. Too much booze can do ugly things to your gut-flora population, says Lynton, who suggests you reach for probiotics as well as Berocca after a big night out. When your gut doesn’t feel right, a probiotic helps by giving the good bacteria a scientifically proven boost he says. “Eating two small tubs of probiotic yoghurt a day for a week will encourage the good bacteria.”
Anyone who’s necked a protein shake after the gym will know it can incite an excitable bout of wind-breaking. “It definitely happens,” says personal trainer Paolo Miranda. “I’ve had episodes when I’ve been in serious training and I’m constantly doing little silent ones through the day. Not necessarily smelly but consistent.” “Was it directly from the protein powder or the chicken and 12 egg whites I was having each day? I don’t know. But I couldn’t do anything because I didn’t want to stop the protein intake.” Lynton agrees it’s a common problem. But the protein itself may not be to blame. “Most of the time, additives and sweeteners are the hidden culprits,” he insists. If you’re skeptical (and brave) then try eating four protein bars in one day. “Your gut will blow up like a balloon with gas and you’ll need to spend the day within arm’s length of the can,” Lynton says. “It’s not the protein but the amounts of artificial sweeteners like sorbitol and aspartame that low-carb bars have. These cause havoc with your gut,” he says. While the sweeteners are often to blame in low-carb protein supplements, the gas-builders in high-carb products tend to be the cheap protein-filler ingredients like skim milk powders that are high in lactose, explains Lynton. To avoid this, scour the list of ingredients and buy a quality brand. Egg whey proteins are beneficial for your gut, so look for them as a main ingredient.
The Great Escape
But even if you refine your diet and stick to healthy, non-processed foods, you’ll still be letting off some gas. As a man, it’s inevitable that your farts will occasionally trip you up. It’s part of being a man, after all. Being a woman, however, is a different story altogether. As the ninjas of flatulence, they’re true masters at avoiding detection. To learn their stealthy secrets of concealment, I visited June Dally-Watkins, the queen of womanly good manners who runs two deportment schools. Dally-Watkins has been training girls to act like ladies for decades, part of which includes never (or at least never giving the perception of) farting in public. Follow her tips to get away with your bottom’s misdemeanours every time.
Disguise: “Carry around an aerosol to spray the smell,” says Dally-Watkins. A standard breath freshener will do the job just fine. Simply whip it out and give your mouth a squirt before surreptitiously swooping it past bottom level, letting loose with another squirt before putting it back in your pocket.
Decoy: if you make an audible fart “never, never admit” to it, says Dally-Watkins, who advises to “prepare your reaction and expressions at home”. You don’t want to give yourself away with an over-reaction or self-convicting smile. “Practise turning around looking surprised to put the focus on someone behind you. Doing that in front of a mirror will help get your expressions right.”
Denial is “absolutely” the key for flying under the blame radar, especially if the fart is silent but deadly. If you can’t make it to the toilet, “you’re going to have to let it out,” says Dally-Watkins. Self-belief is the key: if you believe you’re innocent, so will others. So, stand tall and soar above the stench – because this is one case where it is definitely better to give than receive.