James Hubbard, of Colorado Springs, Colo., is a family practitioner and publisher of MyFamilyDoctorMag.com, a website written by health care providers. He recently started the blog “The Survival Doctor,” offering advice for times when medical aid is unavailable.
Everyone has the occasional stomach or intestinal concern. Here are answers to a few common questions.
Q: How much gas is normal and what foods cause it?
The average person produces about 2 quarts per day and passes it 14 to 20 times, but who’s counting?
Swallowed air trapped in the stomach while eating, drinking (gulping), smoking and gum chewing can cause belching gas, as can the carbon dioxide from carbonated beverages.
Bacteria in the gut contribute to intestinal gas. Food that’s hard or slow to digest allows the bacteria to produce more gas. Different people may have problems with different foods. Milk in lactose-intolerant people is a prime example. Fiber is another poorly digestible substance—good for colon health, maybe not so good for socializing. Even starches—bread, pasta, potatoes—can cause gas.
And then there are the sugars. Fructose, sorbitol and raffinose cause misery for some. These sugary bombs are in beans, onions, cabbage, broccoli, many fruits and more. You also can find them outside their natural habitats: Fructose sweetens soft drinks; sorbitol is a low-calorie sweetener in candies and foods. (And it’s not the only low-calorie sweetener to cause problems.)
Gaseous culprits are everywhere. With a little trial and error, you should be able to find which ones affect you.
Q: I’m lactose intolerant, and it seems to be getting worse as I age. Why?
Lactose is a sugar found in foods such as milk and other dairy products. Your body must break it down to simpler sugars for your intestine to absorb it. Lactase is the enzyme your body uses to do this. If you’re lactose intolerant, you don’t produce enough lactase to do the job properly. The result is undigested lactose rumbling down your intestinal tract, causing painful bloating, gas and diarrhea.
Most babies have plenty of lactase for survival on their all-milk diet. With weaning, our genes start producing less and less lactase, presuming we don’t need it anymore. At some point we may not have enough to digest lactose properly. This may occur as early as 2 years old, but usually not later than 20. The ability to continue to produce ample lactase is actually thought to be a genetic mutation developed as we have come to drink milk more often after infancy.
Lactose-intolerant sufferers may continue to produce even less lactase after adulthood. Why is unclear. You might want to have a checkup to rule out diseases like celiac, which causes poor digestion of the protein gluten, found in wheat, barley and rye, and also is associated with lactose intolerance.
Q: I’ve been hearing a lot about probiotics. Do I need them even if I don’t have stomach problems?
You’ll be hearing even more during the next few years since scientists are just starting to study the safety and effectiveness of these supplements.
Probiotics are the live, friendly bacteria found in the intestinal tract. We need them to be in a healthy balance not only for normal bowel function but because 70 percent of the body’s immune system is connected to the intestine.
Ingesting more probiotics helps restore this delicate balance when intestinal infections, antibiotics or even stress upsets it. Some scientists think probiotics could play a role in decreasing allergies, eczema and even the risk of colon cancer. The specific probiotic Bifidobacterium infantis may help treat diarrhea associated with irritable bowel syndrome, according to the American Academy of Gastroenterology.
We need a lot more scientific scrutiny and studies before I could say you really need them if you don’t have stomach problems.
Talk to your doctor before using them if you have an immune deficiency or chronic disease or are taking medicines.