ADVICE

Gas, bloating and bowel movements: What’s normal?

Reviewed by our expert panel
Toilet

Farting, belching, wind, poo… It’s not exactly dinner table conversation, is it? But how do you know what’s normal? Australian HFG editor and dietitian Brooke Delfino provides answers.

Despite the fact that more than half of all adults experience unpleasant gut issues each year, a large number refuse to discuss these symptoms with their GP. The key reason? Embarrassment. HFG lifts the lid on the often unmentionable topics of constipation, bloating, belching and wind.

Suffering in silence

Digestive issues such as excessive gas, bloating, cramping, constipation and diarrhoea can wreak havoc on a person’s day-to-day life. While farting and pooing is normal, it seems talking about them is not. A 2016 US survey revealed nearly two in three women aren’t willing to talk about gut issues with even their friends. And that’s a problem because it leaves so many of us in the dark about what a normal bowel habit actually is, and what counts as constipation, bloating or excessive gas.

The good news is that common gut concerns, such as reflux, constipation and even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), can be managed with the help of a few dietary and lifestyle changes, so there’s no need to suffer in silence.

What’s normal?

One of the most frequently asked gut-health questions is what’s ‘normal’ when it comes to bathroom habits. Everyone’s bowel habits are different but, ideally, your bowel will move once or twice a day on most days of the week. This should happen easily, without you having to strain, and the motion should be soft and bulky. To find out what a normal bowel motion (also called a stool) should look like, see our guide below.

1. Potential issue: Constipation

“Is it normal to strain when doing a number two?”

What it feels like

You feel uncomfortably full and have to strain on the toilet. When you do go, it’s painful or difficult and your stools are hard and dry, like pellets.

What causes it

Most of the time it’s your diet causing constipation: consuming too little fibre and not enough water. Or you could be experiencing a big change to your usual eating habits, for example, being on holiday. Certain medications, such as pain meds or iron supplements, can also be the culprit.

The fix

Prevent or ease constipation with the three ‘f’s: fibre, fluid and fitness. Slowly increase the amount of fibre in your diet from sources like wholegrain bread, high-fibre cereals (wheat bran/oats), nuts, legumes, fruit and veg. Drink plenty of water, too. Being active, even if it’s just walking around the block, can also help get things moving. Over-the-counter stool softeners, gentle laxatives or a fibre supplement (psyllium) can also provide relief.

2. Potential issue: Indigestion or reflux

“After I eat I start belching and feel a burn in my throat. What’s happening?”

What it feels like

Indigestion is a painful or uncomfortable feeling you experience in the upper abdomen after you eat, as in ‘you really didn’t need that last mouthful of food’. Reflux is a burning sensation rising from your stomach and chest to your throat, and is also known as heartburn.

What causes it

Eating or drinking too quickly, or too much. Or eating while you’re reclined and laying down straight after you’ve been eating. Reflux can be triggered by certain foods and drinks, including spicy, fatty or citrus foods, and coffee or alcohol. Underlying medical conditions, such as a hiatus hernia, a peptic ulcer or even anxiety and stress, can sometimes cause reflux to occur.

The fix

When eating, think about your posture, pace and portion. Eat meals in a calm environment, where you don’t feel too rushed. Sit upright (not slumped or reclined) and try to eat slowly, taking moderate-sized bites and chewing food well before swallowing. Practise putting your knife and fork down beside your plate between bites.

If you’re prone to polishing off everything in front of you, don’t over-pile your plate. Better yet, switch to a smaller plate. Stop and pause halfway through meals to assess how full you really are.

After meals, allow two to three hours before bedtime to let your body digest the food. If you lay down straight after eating, your stomach pushes up and puts pressure on your oesophagus, causing discomfort and pain. If you’re overweight, losing weight can help relieve reflux symptoms.

3. Potential issue: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

“I often get cramps and bloating after eating. Is this why my toilet habits are all over the place?”

What it feels like

An uncomfortable combination of bloating, excessive gas and diarrhoea, alternating with chronic constipation. Your life and activities are often ruled by your proximity to a bathroom.

What causes it

Despite much research worldwide, the cause of IBS is still unclear and thought to be related to a number of factors. Some theories are that it’s due to increased sensitivity of the gut and a disturbance to its normal rhythmic movement. New research shows that stress can also play a role. Certain foods — specifically a group of short-chain carbohydrates called FODMAPs — can trigger symptoms.

The fix

Most people can ease symptoms by changes to their diet, along with other treatments like medication, psychological therapies and lifestyle changes to reduce stress. IBS treatment should be individualised. For some, food plays a role, whereas lifestyle factors have a greater impact for others. Consult with an accredited practising dietitian before making major dietary changes.

What are FODMAPS?

FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These are a group of sugars in some foods that are poorly digested, causing bloating, wind and discomfort in people with IBS. Onion and garlic are the biggest culprits. A recent study found that eating a low-FODMAP diet was effective in reducing symptoms in about 75 per cent of IBS-sufferers.

Smart swaps to ease bloating

Just found out that FODMAPs are behind your tummy pain and bloating? Try these simple food swaps.

High FODMAPLow FODMAP
PearsBlueberries
Beans and legumesTofu
Garlic and onionGarlic-infused olive oil
AsparagusBok choy
MilkLactose-free milk
Wholemeal breadWholemeal or spelt sourdough

Warning signs you shouldn’t ignore

One of the key signs of a healthy digestive system is that it’s not causing you any problems. However, if any of the following are a common occurrence, talk to your GP.

  1. Burning sensation in your throat after eating might be acid reflux.
  2. Regular straining may indicate that you have constipation.
  3. Bad breath could be a symptom pointing to chronic reflux.
  4. Sudden change to bowel habits such as hard/lumpy stools or watery/mushy stools could be a sign of IBS.
  5. Pain when pooing could signal constipation, haemorrhoids or even something more serious.
  6. Excessive gas and cramps may be related to having IBS.
  7. Sharp abdominal pain on your left side could be symptomatic of diverticulitis.
  8. Frequent bloating or discomfort could be a sign you are constipated or have IBS.
  9. An offensive smell could be a sign that your food is not being absorbed adequately (you may be lactose intolerant, for example) or indicate infection.
  10. Blood in the toilet could be a symptom of colon cancer or haemorrhoids. See your GP immediately if you notice blood in your stool.

Help… my farts are smelly!

First of all, passing wind is normal. Gas is a natural by-product of the digestive process. According to the Gut Foundation, the average number of emissions per day for men is 12, while for women it’s seven, depending on the individual and the quality of their diet. Some foods produce more-offensive gas than others — think sulphur-containing vegetables like cabbage, Brussels sprouts and broccoli. Spicy curries, garlic and onion can also result in strong-smelling wind, as can dried fruit, long-life juice and deli meats that contain sulphites.

First published: Nov 2021

Article sources and references

Go to homepage*Subsequent months will be $2.75