Farts, also known as flatus or gas, are completely normal and experienced by everyone. But as all of us would know, it is usually something people avoid doing (at least in a noticeable way) when they are in public. Logically, that means holding it in.

The question is — what happens when we do that? The query was addressed by Clare Collins in her recently published article in The Conversation. Collins is a professor in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

What exactly happens in our body to cause farts?

There are two processes in our body that lead to the formation of gas. When food moves into the intestine, the process of digestion involving bacteria can release hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane which need a way to exit your body. Gas also occurs due to excess air we swallow while chewing gum, drinking carbonated beverages, smoking, mouth-breathing, etc.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases provides a list of foods and drinks that are likely to cause gas. Examples include dairy products, asparagus, beans, whole grains, and certain medications or supplements.

Alright. And what happens when you try to suppress it?

Though it would be convenient, the gas does not magically disappear when you hold it in. It simply finds an alternative way to leave the body — via the mouth, unfortunately.

“Trying to hold it in leads to a build-up of pressure and major discomfort,” Collins wrote in her article. “A build-up of intestinal gas can trigger abdominal distention, with some gas reabsorbed into the circulation and exhaled in your breath.”

In another scenario, she notes, holding on for too long could lead to a build-up of intestinal gas which may eventually escape as an uncontrollable fart.

How much flatus can we consider to be normal?

Both men and women can pass gas up to 20 times on a daily basis, sometimes without being accompanied by a distinctive sound or odor. This is considered to be in the “normal” range, according to Dr. Kyle Staller, a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “That’s pretty common for all of us.”

If flatus episodes seem excessive enough that they are affecting you in a negative way, it is best to see a health professional and find a way around them. Sometimes, they could indicate a digestive disorder such as inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, lactose intolerance, gastroesophageal reflux disease and more. 

So the next time I have to pass gas, what should I do?

There is no evidence to suggest that holding it in is dangerous for our health. At most, you might experience stomach cramps. However, if you are in a position to pass gas freely, Collins recommends just going for it.

“The next time you feel a large volume of intestinal gas getting ready to do what it does, try to move to a more convenient location,” she wrote. “Whether you make it there or not, the best thing for your digestive health is to just let it go.”

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