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QUESTION: Is it bad to hold in gas?
ANSWER: Passing gas is a good thing. It’s a sign that your digestive tract is working the way it should. Some of the most beneficial foods you can eat have lots of dietary fiber in them – broccoli, cauliflower, raspberries, avocados, whole wheat, various fruits, and, of course, beans. This fiber comes in the form of what we call complex carbohydrates (as opposed to simple carbohydrates, like those found in sugar, syrup, etc.).
Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest, sitting in your large intestine for some period of time. They’re very healthy – numerous studies have linked a decrease in the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer with the consumption of these complex carbs – but while they’re sitting in your large intestine, they begin to ferment. Simple carbohydrates, which are typically much less healthy, tend to pass right through.
But the complex ones – what we sometimes call roughage, or insoluble fiber – tend to stay inside of you for longer. And while they’re fermenting inside your intestine, they release gas.
Tiny bubbles build up and combine, making their way to your colon, ultimately being expelled from your body in the form of flatulence. Holding in your gas for a relatively brief period of time – while you’re in a room full of other people, for example – is harmless, and (depending on who the people are) often a good idea. But if you hold in your gas too frequently, or for too long a period of time, you may experience colon discomfort, bloating, pain, pressure, constipation, cramping, and even hemorrhoidal irritation.
Rarely does holding in gas result in serious medical complications, but it’s always a good idea to release it (at the proper time, and in the proper place, of course), rather than keeping it inside you for too long. The body will release some of the gas you hold in through other means, if it has to – through the lungs, the nose, the mouth, or even through partial reabsorption.
It’s normal to pass gas as often as 25 times per day (that’s half a liter to 1.5 liters of volume per day, in case you’re interested). The primary makeup of your gas is hydrogen, followed by carbon dioxide. Very few humans actually produce measurable methane; the balance of what is emitted is nitrogen.
Men and women expel about the same amount of gas. Your body emits roughly half as much while you’re sleeping, compared with when you’re awake.
This column does not establish a provider/patient relationship and is for general informational purposes only. This column is not a substitute for consulting with a physician or other health care provider.
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