Did you know that farts can reveal a lot about your health?
While farts are often depicted in popular culture as sources of embarrassment or humor (or both!), farting is a biological phenomenon that is a normal part of digestion.
It is important to have evidence-based information on what farts are, why they happen, and when it’s time to be concerned. If your farts (or your partner or child’s) smell extra stinky, they may actually be telling you something . . .
This article delves into the science behind farting, the most common reasons for frequent and smelly farts, and how nutrition and eating behaviors play a role in managing gas (and promoting good gut health), so you can tell what your farts say about your health.
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What Causes Farting?
Gas accumulates within the digestive system and eventually gets released. When gas is expelled through the mouth, this is known as burping or belching. However, when the gas is released from the rectum, this is recognized as farting or flatulence, and it usually happens when there is excess gas in the large intestine, also known as the colon.
Alexandra “Alex” C. Sanchez, a Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist, consultant, and owner of Nutrition Harmony LLC providing nutrition counseling to individuals with digestive disorders and concerns in Massachusetts, explains farts “usually come from swallowed air during the course of daily activities and the fermentation of undigested foods by bacteria in the colon.”
Though it may be embarrassing at times (particularly if loud or stinky), farting is a perfectly natural process. The truth is that most people fart daily. According to the Canadian Society for Intestinal Research, the average person farts between 12 and 25 times per day!
Most farts do not have a smell, but when there is an odor it is typically due to bacteria in the large intestine which release small amounts of gases like hydrogen sulfide.
While farting every day is normal, certain characteristics of farts may indicate more serious digestive issues. These include:
- Farting more persistently and more frequently than usual
- Farts are foul-smelling
- Farts are accompanied by abdominal discomfort, bloating, and/or pain
- You have unexplained weight loss, fever, and/or blood in your stool
If any of the above describe your farts, it is best to speak with a physician for further evaluation.
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3 Common Reasons You May Be Farting:
While the reasons for farting vary from person to person, certain foods, eating behaviors, and health conditions have been found to increase the likelihood of farting. Here are three common culprits, along with nutrition and lifestyle recommendations which may help you feel better (and a little less gassy).
1. You May Be Swallowing Too Much Air
We may think of swallowing air as a reason we belch, but it is often the cause behind farts too! Sanchez explains there are many reasons why we might swallow excess air, including:
- Eating too quickly
- Talking a lot while eating
- Using straws when drinking
- Drinking carbonated beverages
- Chewing gum
- Wearing poor-fitting dentures
- Being under a lot of stress
- Having post-nasal drip
How to help: To avoid causing excess gas formation from swallowed air, Registered Dietitian Amanda Sauceda recommends incorporating aspects of mindful eating into your routine. “Try making an effort to chew slower, relax while eating, and avoid drinking out of a straw.”
2. You May Be Constipated
Constipation refers to when bowel movements are infrequent (less than three per week), hard to pass, or feel incomplete (like there is more stool left that hasn’t come out). It is usually caused by factors like poor diet, medications, irritable bowel syndrome, poor bowel habits (like waiting too long to use the bathroom), and/or pelvic floor dysfunction.
When stool remains in the gastrointestinal tract for a long time, it gets fermented by bacteria. The fermentation process can lead to frequent and sometimes smelly farting.
How to help: Constipation can be alleviated through drinking lots of water daily, eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods, consuming adequate fiber, and getting regular physical activity. Additionally, nutrients like magnesium can help improve and prevent constipation.
3. You May Need to Adjust Your Diet
Food can have a significant impact when it comes to gas formation. Occasionally, compounds in certain foods contribute to passing stinky gas. As Sauceda explains, “foods like broccoli or cauliflower have a bit of a scent to them before you eat them, and that scent can also make its way out.”
Other times, farts occur because foods aren’t getting digested well in the gastrointestinal tract. Typically, these are carbohydrate foods that are rich in fiber, which are then used by gut bacteria as fuel. Sauceda stresses that the fermentation of complex carbohydrates “is a good thing, but a byproduct of that process is gas.”
Sanchez shares that common dietary triggers for gas may be undigested fermentable carbohydrates called FODMAPs. These may be found in lactose, beans/legumes, wheat, some cruciferous vegetables, onions, garlic, sugar alcohols, as well as other foods or beverages.
Some people experience increases in farting when taking protein supplements. This likely isn’t caused by the protein itself, but by other components in the supplements which promote gas, such as:
- Lactose, which is found in many whey protein or casein supplements
- Additives, thickeners, and sweeteners like sorbitol and mannitol
- Plant-based protein sources like beans, grains, and legumes
How to help: According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, foods which are less likely to cause intestinal gas include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, okra, cantaloupe, grapes, berries, cherries, avocado, olives, gluten-free bread, rice bread, and rice.
Additionally, consuming probiotic-containing foods like yogurt, miso, and kimchi can help restore good bacteria and promote healthy digestion.
While fiber is an important nutrient to consume, Sauceda’s recommendation is to slowly add it into your diet, “which will help your gut adjust to more fiber and reduce the likelihood of unpleasant effects like gas. It is also important to make sure you are drinking enough water and fluids alongside your fiber intake.”
If you are experiencing more “protein farts”, try switching your protein powder to whey protein isolate (which contains less lactose and is more easily digested), pea, or soy. We recommend Orgain’s Plant-Based Superfoods Protein.
Working with a Registered Dietitian, particularly one who specializes in gastrointestinal health, can help you identify food triggers and/or eating behaviors which may be contributing to gas formation.
Farting and Food Allergies
Certain fart-causing foods can be included in the diet if adjusting the preparation (such as cooking cruciferous veggies instead of eating them raw) or the amount of the food reduces your gas and/or digestive symptoms.
However, if you’re farting much more than usual or have noticeably smelly farts after consuming a certain food, this may indicate an intolerance or allergy.
A common example is lactose intolerance, which is caused by a lack of the enzyme lactase which breaks down the sugar in dairy products like milk and cheese.
When lactose reaches the large intestine undigested, it gets fermented by the colon bacteria which then produce hydrogen and/or methane gases. This can cause frequent and/or smelly farts as well as other symptoms like abdominal discomfort.
While food intolerances can occur on their own, they can also accompany gastrointestinal diagnoses like irritable bowel syndrome and/or inflammatory bowel disease.
If you suspect a potential food allergy or intolerance, avoid self-diagnosis and/or starting an elimination diet without medical supervision. Contact your medical provider to get a validated test and best practices for treatment.
What Farts Can Say About Your Health: The Takeaway
Simply put, farts occur when gas is released from the large intestine through the rectum. Farting is a normal part of the human digestive process and it’s usually no biggie if it happens every day.
The most common cause of gas is swallowed air, and many eating behaviors are more likely to increase the likelihood of farting. Limiting or avoiding carbonated drinks, opting not to drink out of straws, and/or practicing mindful eating may help prevent or lessen gas.
Certain foods may increase gas frequency and/or odor, including high-FODMAP foods, foods rich in fiber, and foods containing lactose. However, triggers for intestinal gas can vary a lot from person to person, and many gas-causing foods are highly nutrient-dense.
It is best to work with a Registered Dietitian to determine a dietary plan which helps reduce gas while ensuring your nutrient needs are met.
Seek out medical care if you find that your farts are more frequent than usual, foul-smelling, or are accompanied by uncomfortable or painful symptoms. According to Sanchez, “it’s important to be evaluated when gas becomes abnormal for you. A Gastroenterologist and Registered Dietitian may be helpful care team members.”
All included information is not intended to treat or diagnose. Always consult your healthcare provider for medical questions and before beginning or changing any dietary, supplementation, and exercise regimen.
Special thanks to contributors Alexandra “Alex” C. Sanchez, MS, RD, LDN, and Amanda Sauceda, MS, RD.