Why you should no longer feel awkward about flatulence
- Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Let’s get one thing straight, as embarrassing and hilarious as letting one rip can be, it’s a perfectly natural bodily function.
We’re supposed to pass wind between five to 15 times a day to expel the gases we make when we eat, drink and breathe but, when your farting starts to increase in velocity and frequency, and begins impacting on your social life, you could have a problem.
I started investigating this phenomenon when I had a couple of experiences I’d rather forget.
The first was at Christmas 2019 when eight of us were sitting around the dining table; I got up to get more wine from the kitchen and broadcasted every single step of the short journey with a series of farts that would have made Mr Gatling proud.
Farts can travel about 10 feet per second, but mine were definitely faster and possibly as loud.
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I was mortified, my friends affected deafness and my kids cried with laughter.
The only blessing was that my farts were entirely odourless (give me silent-but-deadly any time - there’s always a chance it could be someone else’s).
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The second occasion, which still haunts me, was when I was getting out of my client’s car at the station.
What happened next was not a slow and tragic Joe Wicks groan, but a short, sharp eruption, reminiscent of a thunderclap just before lightning strikes.
It wouldn’t have registered on the Richter scale, but I was shaken.
This time it was me who feigned deafness, before saying goodbye, slamming the door and legging it as fast as my kitten-heeled slingbacks would allow.
Matters continued to deteriorate.
Where I could once enjoy the tranquillity of a yoga class, it now became an hour of anticipated terror as I’d never know when a few might want to make a break for it.
Sadly, I’d realised some time ago that clenching was no longer a defence against uncontrollable flatulence and so, without any effort at all, I had become an involuntary farter of epic proportions.
Was I destined to be held prisoner by my own emissions?
No, I was not going to let this dominate my life.
I needed to reset to factory settings, and so began my quest to tame my farts.
I started asking friends and family about their experiences with flatulence and it was clear they primarily associated excessive farting with old age, namely their grandparents.
One woman I spoke to said her gran would punctuate every stair she climbed on her way to bed with a fart; more stories followed, all in a similar vein.
So, it’s an ageing thing then – or could it be conquered?
Through my GP, a phone consultation was arranged with an NHS gastroenterologist.
He (I won’t him or I’d shame him) told me in no uncertain terms that there was no connection between ageing and excessive flatulence. So there! Was I an exception then? Those grans and grandads too?
I wasn’t convinced and refused to accept my current ‘condition’ was normal; I had to find a logical explanation.
Thanks to the advice from two specialists, I not only found out why farting tends to happen more frequently as you age, but how to resolve the issue for good.
What goes in has to come out
So, why were these gases conspiring against me and not everyone else I knew?
A fabulous NHS community dietician (I want to mention her name, but she’s shy) told me it wasn’t the gas I should blame but the food I’m eating.
I don’t know why I didn’t know this, but there are whole groups of food, called Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, Di-saccharides, Mono-saccharides and Polyols, FODMAPS for short, that create excess gas in some people.
She suggested I try a low FODMAP diet, a regime usually recommended for people with IBS, where I eliminate certain grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy products from my meals to see which might be contributing to my excessive flatulence.
But, when she heard about my daily tea-drinking habit (2.5 litres of English Breakfast), she told me to cut down immediately.
I was having far too much caffeine, a stimulant known to affect the gastrointestinal tract, leading to indigestion, flatus and diarrhoea.
I loved my tea but not as much as I hated being held hostage by farts so, over the next fortnight, I gradually replaced English Breakfast with Rooibos (which I always drank at night).
It’s caffeine-free, low in tannins, has a wealth of other health benefits and was my saviour.
Within a matter of days the reduction in flatulence was audible.
What a blessed relief and I hadn’t even started the low FODAP diet.
FODMAP was harder as some of the food I cut out, like onions and garlic, I cook with virtually every day but, long story short, after a process of elimination and re-introduction, I now know that the humble pea, closely followed by the delicious chestnut mushroom, is my nemesis! Who knew?
But how does ageing play its part in all of this?
Here’s what else I learned from the dietician: as you age there’s a tendency to develop lactose intolerance which means dairy products can make you fart more than you used to.
Ageing and medication could also be responsible for an overgrowth of bacteria in your small intestine which also increases flatulence.
You can take a breath test, also known as a Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) test, to check whether you have this. If you do, antibiotics can be used to treat it, but there are natural remedies too.
That darned pelvic floor
Now I truly felt I was on the road to recovery, but there was still physical dimension that needed to be tackled.
You know the kind of thing, you get out of your chair, walk to the door and, of course, go up the stairs, announcing every single move with a fart?
Enter Katrina Wade, women’s health physiotherapist, founder of Bodyworks Physiotherapist Clinic in Colchester and Queen of the Pelvic Floor.
And that darned pelvic floor takes centre stage when it comes to stopping those farts escaping.
The pelvic floor muscles are connected to the internal and external anal sphincters (two rings of muscles which hold in farts and stools until you’re ready) and, if your pelvic floor muscles are weak, then your clenching ability is compromised.
Katrina says the only way to regain control over flatulence is to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles through specific exercises (also called Kegel exercises).
Tightening and relaxing your pelvic floor muscles many times a day can strengthen the muscles in your anus, pelvic floor and rectum, providing you do them correctly. (Go to bodyworksphysio.net or see your GP for advice on this.)
I’ve been doing these exercises, which are not the easiest as it’s such a slight movement, but they are having a gradual effect. Katrina says I should see an improvement within three months. I’m counting the days.
Katrina Wade’s top tips for managing flatus:
· Do your pelvic floor muscle exercises every day.
· Avoid chewing gum and stop smoking so you stop swallowing air.
· Take regular exercise to keep the digestive system healthy.
· Try eating a little more slowly. Chew each mouthful carefully (especially if the food is high in fibre). If you’re in a hurry, don’t be tempted to wash down half-chewed food with a drink.
· Cut down on caffeine which has a tendency to increase bowel activity for some people and may increase wind. Try decaffeinated tea and coffee for a week or so to see if this makes a difference.
· Cut down on carbonated drinks and beer or lager. Burps are a more usual response, but some people experience more wind with these drinks.
· Herbal teas, like camomile, peppermint and fennel calm the bowel and less wind seems to be produced.
Please note, I’m not a clinician or a dietitian, but everything I’ve written here about my approach to controlling flatus is based entirely on my own experience.
We’re all different and, if you’re in any doubt about how to tackle any issues you have with flatulence safely, please check with your GP first.
We’re all getting older and deserve to enjoy our lives as much as we can, so it helps to look after ourselves and it’s never too late to start.
If you’ve got a specific issue that’s bothering you or that you’d like discussed in an Age Inappropriate column, please send me an email and I’ll see what I can do.