By Zahra Barnes
Even though farting is a fact of life, it’s not exactly something you want to do in polite company—or even in front of someone who knows all your flaws, like your significant other. As an alternative, maybe you hold it in for hours until you’re alone and can get the sweet, sweet release of letting it all out.
It’s a normal urge, but can keeping your gas bottled tight screw with your system? Here’s what you need to know.
Why does your body release gas in the first place?
When your body tries to get rid of gas buildup, it’ll either do so via a belch that leaves your mouth or flatulence that escapes from your rectum. Burping is often a result of “air aphasia,” a.k.a. eating air.
“Some people tend to swallow more air when they talk or chew gum,” says Lisa Ganjhu, D.O., clinical assistant professor of medicine and gastroenterology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. “That air collects in their stomachs before eventually coming out, usually as a burp.”
Unlike burping, farting causes are a little less straightforward: “Sometimes bacteria or food ferment in the stomach, leading to acidity and gas,” says Dr. Ganjhu.
Food issues like lactose or gluten intolerance can also turn you into a tooting machine. Even if your stomach can handle milk and wheat like a pro, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and asparagus contain fructans, carbohydrates that are a little tougher to digest and can lead to more gas as your body tries to break them down, says Dr. Ganjhu.
What happens when you hold in your farts?
Breathe a sigh of relief: Chances are highly unlikely it’ll seriously affect your health, says Dr. Ganjhu. But try as you might, if your body wants to get rid of some extra air, it’s going to happen eventually.
“You pass gas 10 to 20 times a day, often without even realizing it,” she says. “It’s a normal byproduct of your digestion of food.” Sure, while you’re focused on clenching your buns together, you might manage to keep everything inside. But as soon as you get distracted, the floodgates will probably open.
“As you’re walking and going about your business, your body will pass the air,” says Dr. Ganjhu.
That being said, the only real exception to the holding-in-your-farts-won’t-seriously-injure-you rule is people who have severe obstructions in their colons.
“In that case, the colon blows up like a balloon because of the blockage,” says Dr. Ganjhu. “If there are any weaknesses in the walls, eventually it can burst.” Although that paints a frighteningly vivid picture, there’s no real reason to be worried, she says. That kind of thing only happens with critically ill patients, and even then, it’s rare.
And while holding in your gas won’t actually harm you, it can still make you feel like a sausage in too-tight casing. “Your digestive tract is like one of those big balloons clowns use to make animals,” says Dr. Ganjhu. “Anything that affects downstream will affect upstream.” What she means is any sort of air buildup lower in your gastrointestinal tract, like in your colon, will eventually push upward and cause bloating and discomfort around your midsection.
How can you avoid holding in your farts?
Your best bet is to excuse yourself to the restroom where you can relieve yourself in peace. Better now, when you expect it, than to have one squeak out in the middle of a meeting because you’re trying to hold it in. If your goal is to cut down on your farting in the first place, try consuming more probiotics, which can help align the bacteria in your gut.
“Fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut are all good ways to get more probiotics, or you can try probiotic pills specifically for your digestive tract,” says Dr. Ganjhu.
And if you needed another reason to stay away from fake sweeteners, here you have it: “Fat-free and sugar-free sweeteners are full of non-absorbable sugars, which are non-digestible and come out as gas or diarrhea,” says Dr. Ganjhu.