Passing wind may not be life-threatening, but it can be uncomfortable and embarrassing, especially if if happens too often. Commonsense changes in your diet and some helpful supplements can provide welcome relief for you – and those around you.

What is it?

Passing intestinal wind is perfectly normal. A typical adult male does it as often as 12 times a day, while women average 7 times a day. But normal doesn't necessarily mean worry-free. Even the average amounts of flatulence can cause discomfort and embarrassment for some people, and for others the frequency of episodes and the amount of wind emitted are well above the average. The only good thing about flatulence is that by itself it is not a symptom of cancer or any other serious intestinal disease.

What causes it?

Flatulence is the result of a buildup of excess gases in the digestive tract – gases that are then expelled through the rectum. Chemical reactions that occur after eating certain foods are the most common cause. The most likely culprits are broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, onions and legumes. Because they contain complex carbohydrates, these foods are often not completely digested in the stomach and small intestine. After they arrive in the large intestine, they are broken down by the harmless bacteria that live there, and certain gases – carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and methane – are by-products of this bacteria action. And in some people, milk and milk products induce wind and bloating; this milk-related flatulence is often the result of lactose intolerance.

Hydrogen sulphide and other compounds containing sulphur are responsible for the unpleasant odour of some intestinal wind – though not all wind has an odour. Passing excessive wind can be a symptom of disorders that hinder normal digestion, such as celiac disease. It can also result from stressful situations, because people under stress often swallow a lot of air.

What are the symptoms?

  • Frequent emission of wind through the rectum.
  • Stomach discomfort and bloating.

Are there any natural therapies?

Ginger, in tablet form or freshly frated root (mixed with a little lime juice) is a good all-purpose digestive aid. It soothes the digestive tract and is useful for relieving flatulence.

Acidophilus and bifidus, two of the friendly bacteria that inhabit the large intestine, help to keep the growth of gas-producing bacteria in check. FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides), indigestible carbohydrates that are present in certain foods, promote the growth of friendly bacteria. Replenishing these bacteria will often relieve flatulence, bloating and other digestive complaints. If this course of action is unsuccessful, use activated charcoal to absorb gas in the intestine and to help reduce the accompanying odour. Activated charcoal is also available in the form of pills or a tasteless powder, which can be mixed in a glass of cold water and sipped through a straw to prevent it from staining the teeth.

What else can I do?

  • Avoid carbonated beverages.
  • Chew food thoroughly. Large particles cause flatulence when they pass into the large intestine without being completely digested.
  • Eat slowly. If you eat too quickly, you tend to swallow more air.
  • Soak legumes before cooking, which removes some indigestible sugars. Discard the soaking water and cook the beans in fresh water.
  • Give up dairy products for a few days. If you notice an improvement, you may be lactose intolerant.

Did you know?

Even America's Founding Fathers had to come to terms with the problem of wind. Benjamin Franklin once noted: 'It is universally well known, that in digesting our common food, there is created or produced in the bowels of human creatures, a great quantity of wind'.