You’re probably familiar with what intestinal gas feels like. Everyone burps and farts. It’s just a part of being human. In fact, most people pass gas (either by farting or burping) 13 to 21 times a day, according to the National Institutes of Health . But excessive gas that’s different from what you normally experience or turns into an uncomfortable nuisance may be a signal that you should tune in to your gut.
When it comes to passing gas, it’s hard to define what, exactly, “normal” means, Julie Taw, MD , board-certified internal medicine physician at Parsley Health New York , says. Because it varies so much from person to person, it makes more sense to think about what’s not normal.
“When you start to feel discomfort in your abdomen. When you feel bloated—many people describe looking like they’re pregnant. That’s abnormal,” Taw explains. “Occasional flatulence is normal to have, but if you feel uncomfortable in your belly or have very stinky farts, that shows that there’s something going on with your digestion.” A change in your bowel habits can also signal that something is amiss. “If you’re having constipation or frequent loose stools, those are abnormal signs,” says Taw. If you’re particularly gassy after meals, that’s also a good indication that something’s off with your digestion.
Let’s back up a second and talk about what gas actually is—besides sometimes loud and odorless, sometimes quiet and smelly, and always unwelcome. Simply put, it’s air trapped in your digestive tract . Some of it comes from air that you swallow; the rest of it is produced when bacteria in your large intestine break down undigested food. Chemically, it’s mostly made up of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane. Sometimes other gases , like hydrogen sulfide, can get added to the mix depending on what foods you’ve eaten. It’s these gases that can cause an unpleasant odor.
“There’s a whole long list of things that cause gas,” Taw says. “All the phases of digestion need to be in balance to not develop excessive gas.” The first step is easy: Make sure to thoroughly chew your food. “That’s so basic but important,” says Taw. “So many of us eat on-the-go and at our desk, and we don’t pay attention to chewing properly. And that’s the first phase of digestion.” Once you chew and swallow your food, your stomach acid and digestive enzymes produced in your stomach, small intestine, gallbladder, and pancreas need to do their jobs of breaking down the food further. “This is important because if food goes into your small intestines not well digested, then bacteria in the intestines will ferment these foods and produce gases,” explains Taw.
“There are some things that could be abnormal in the digestive system that can cause excessive gas,” Taw says. The below conditions could all be to blame for ramping up the gas production in your body.
Dysbiosis is a persistent imbalance of the microbes that live in the gut. Taw explains it as an imbalance of the “good microbes” compared to the “less healthy microbes” that strike the proper balance in a healthy situation. Things like medications, antibiotics, alcohol, and changes in your diet can all change the balance of your gut microbiota.
SIBO stands for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. When there are excess bacteria in the small intestine, it gets busy fermenting the food we eat and produces higher amounts of those hydrogen and methane gases that make up gas. “One way to diagnose SIBO is to do a breath test and measure methane and hydrogen,” Taw says. The condition can cause the belly to become distended because the intestines literally become full with gas, she says.
Yeast overgrowth can also cause gas and bloating , says Taw. Yeast is an important part of the microbe mix in a healthy gut, but when the gut bacteria is out of balance, it can allow yeast to grow unchecked. A diet high in carbohydrates and sugar, excess alcohol consumption, and antibiotics can increase your risk of yeast overgrowth.
Certain infections can also cause extra gas, Taw says. “This would include parasitic infections like giardia or blastocystis,” she says, and “would be considered worst-case scenarios.” Parasites like this can commonly be picked up in contaminated food or water.
“Lactose intolerance is different than dairy sensitivity,” explains Taw. “People with lactose intolerance are deficient in a digestive enzyme called lactase. This enzyme is responsible for breaking down the lactose so that we can process it properly,” she explains. If your body doesn’t produce enough of this enzyme, lactose can’t be broken down and bacteria ferments it in the gut, producing—you guessed it!—a significant amount of gas.
Fiber is an important part of a healthy diet, but for some people, increasing fiber intake can translate to more gas. “It can happen from eating things like legumes and certain vegetables, especially cruciferous vegetables,” Taw says. While that’s certainly not the case for everyone, Taw says it’s something many people do experience.
First things first: Go back to that first phase of digestion, says Taw. Make sure you’re chewing your food well. She also suggests trying a supplemental digestive enzyme, which can help break down certain foods. If you’ve recently increased your fiber intake, try reducing it and see if that helps.
Managing stress and exercising regularly can be helpful, too. “Stress is a major inhibitor of proper digestion,” says Taw. “When we’re in a state of stress, it’s not a priority for our bodies to spend energy digesting, so that can lead to digestive symptoms like gas and bloating and changes in bowel movements.” Exercising is a great antidote for stress, and also just helps promote regular digestion, says Taw. And make sure you’re staying hydrated . “Drinking plenty of water is important for digestion. It does help to flush things through,” says Taw.
An elimination diet can help rule out food sensitivities and lactose intolerance. “We do it by removing many different foods, and then we reintroduce them one at a time,” she explains. When eliminating dairy, the effect can be pretty immediate. “Within a few days [of cutting out dairy] you’ll notice a decrease in gas if you have lactose intolerance.”
If those things don’t help, your doctor can test you for conditions like SIBO, yeast overgrowth, and underlying infections that could be causing your gassiness. By figuring out the root cause, you can receive the right treatment plan and finally get your gas under control.
Amy is a freelance journalist and certified personal trainer. She covers a wide range of health topics, including fitness, health conditions, mental health, sexual and reproductive health, nutrition, and more. Her work has appeared on SELF, Bicycling, Health, and other publications. When she's not busy writing or editing, you can find her hiking, cooking, running, or lounging on the couch watching the latest true crime show on Netflix.