The Lowdown on Flatulence
Sirius Radio's Dr. Steve explains why some people are more malodorous than others
I've got a big, stinky problem. My roommate farts like crazy. I know everyone passes gas, but this guy literally farts 30-50 times per day. My question is why do some people fart so much more than others? Why do some people reek while others don't? We share most meals so we're basically eating the same thing. What gives? — Sean T., Philadelphia, PA
Ugh, this question really brings back bad memories for me. When I was a kid, my brother, who is 12 years older than I am, delighted in holding me down and farting in my face. This would have been bad enough, part of growing up with a big brother, if not for the fact that his flatus was (and still is) the most noxious, puke-inducing gas in the history of the universe. I am certain that breathing the atmosphere of Jupiter would be less toxic. I distinctly remember him chasing five grown men out of a cabin on a remote Canadian lake with one of his malodorous expulsions. I was convinced for years that something demonic had crawled up his rectum and died, but when I went to medical school and developed the scientific skills to investigate crap like this, I put my mind to solving this question.
Intestinal gas is a mixture of swallowed air (if you don't belch it up, it'll pass through to the other end) and products of fermentation of bacteria. When sugars and starches that the human body can't digest enter the lower intestines, bacteria break them down. The byproduct of this system is a variety of gasses, including carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrogen sulfide. Methane is flammable and is produced by most (but not all) people (which is why some people can light their farts and some can't). Carbon dioxide is odorless and heavier-than-air. Hydrogen sulfide creates the majority of the fart smell. It is generally described as having a "rotten egg" stench.
Every person has a slightly different collection of bacteria and yeasts in their gut, and each organism contributes a slightly different nuance to the overall fragrance and volume of gas. Just as a fine wine keeps the palate stimulated with a variety of taste "notes," each person's unique batch of intestinal organisms lends shading to the stench of their farts. Your roommate (and my brother, apparently) simply have a collection of organisms that produce a horrid, malodorous, voluminous reek.
Is there anything that can be done for rotten bowel gas? Some people think that probiotic agents (foods and supplements containing "good" bacteria) help establish a less stinky colony in the bowel. I have yet to find a good study in the medical literature that confirms this, but it probably would do no harm. You can start with live cultured yogurt and step up to the more expensive capsules of freeze-dried bacteria if needed.
In 1997, Chester Weimer was granted patent No. 5593398 entitled "Protective underwear with malodorous flatus filter." The undergarment has a pocket on the rear that has a replaceable activated charcoal packet, which the subject farts through. The sound and odor are muffled by passage through the filter. I'd suggest buying a pair for your roommate and see if they work. If they do, you'll be living in a more fart-free environment. If they don't you will have a hilarious story to tell your friends. Either way it's win-win for you.
**Remember, don't do anything you read here without first consulting with your own health care provider.**
Dr. Steve is the resident medical expert for the Opie and Anthony and Ron and Fez shows, and the host of his own Sirius XM Radio program, Weird Medicine.