By Wil Forbis
February 1, 2015
The internet truly is a wonderful resource. In mere seconds a curious person can find information about all sorts of subjects---history, medicine, art... everything except farts.
That isn't quite true. In fact, I was able to dig up quite a bit of information about farts while writing this article. But the web seemed to present much of this material like a coy aunt---"Oh, we're not supposed to talk about this!" I had to pry the the information from the internet's clenched jaw, overcoming its reticence with sugary sweets and finely honed web searching techniques.
It's strange, our embarrassment at the topic of farting. Gas is, as several children's books reminds us, a very basic human function. It is part of of our shared humanity; young and old, rich and poor, attractive and everyone else but me---we all fart. If you find yourself at a party struggling to make conversation with a stranger, consider that farts are one topic you doubtless both have much experience with. Ask the person, "Do you like farting?" or, "Have you ever figured out why some people's farts smell so different?" and see where that gets you.
I was lying awake one recent morn and thought to myself, "What are farts?" Obviously I know what they are from an experiential viewpoint. I fart copiously and have great familiarity with the variations of farts and farting techniques. But I wanted to understand the details. Why do we fart? What are farts made of? And more specifically, what is happening in our bodies at those moments right before a fart. We feel a tension and perhaps churning in our belly, a gaseous ball striving for release. We can of course, help propel it forward via fine manipulation of our gut muscles, or we can attempt to suppress it. We know how this feels but what is really going on in there?
I should note one thing here. This is not an article attempting to explain how to fart less. (There are a disturbing amount of these on the web.) If this web site has stood for one thing in its entire existence, it is the notion that we should fart freely, proudly and unashamed. To hide the meager fart by attempting to silence it or blaming its smell on the family dog or Jamaican nanny is to do a disservice to ourselves and our core state as biological organisms.
To find out about farts I began with a basic web search on the term fart. It brought to light some useful information. The technical term for farted gas is flatus, and flatus can be caused both by swallowing air (which then works its way though your intestinal system) or the process of digesting food. Still, getting in depth information was surprisingly difficult, even on web sites that had no problem describing the intricacies of other bodily processes.
Eventually though, I deduced the following. 1) Digestive farts are created via the work of bacteria in our intestines breaking down food. 2) A process called peristalis is responsible for pushing the bubbles of air that are farts through our body and out our anus hole. What's that you say? The term is "anus" not "anus hole"? Sorry, but I simply like to say anus hole. Anus hole really rolls off the tongue. Anus hole! Anus hole! Anus hole! Get used to it.
Anyway, I figured to really get to the heart of farts I would need to understand these two processes.
If we review our high school class on food digestion we recall that the goal of the digestion process is to break big chunks of food into tiny molecules that can be absorbed into our bloodstream. Food enters through our mouth (er, you are eating with your mouth right?) and starts to get broken down via chewing and saliva. It travels down our esophagus and into our stomach where further breakdown occurs. From there it goes to the small intestine which continues the process even more.
At this point the food has largely been disassembled and absorbed and the leftover stuff (stool) is passed to the large intestine (colon). However there are some carbohydrates that cannot be broken down by the body; the sugars in beans being one example. We are fortunate that in the colon we have some digestion helpers in the form of the millions of bacteria who go by the title of gut flora (or gut microbiota). The gut flora happily go to work "eating" our undigestible food and in the process release gases that will end up coming out of our anus holes as farts.
Of course, people are different from one another so some of us can break down foods that others can't. Lactose intolerant people, for example, can't digest lactose so it's up to their gut flora to do the job. Different diets also result in different kinds of digestion which leads to different gases produced by gut flora. And different gases of course have different smells. And some people have bacteria in our gut flora that others do not; not all of us, for example, have the bacteria that produces methane which results in the famous flammable farts.
At this point one might presume that one could reduce farting by eating a diet of foods that can be easily digested by your stomach and small intestine (thus depriving the gut flora in your colon.) But active and healthy gut flora are linked to all sorts of health benefits so you want to keep them fed and happy. It is possible to have too much of a good thing however. Small intestine bacteria overgrowth occurs when bacteria in the colon grows into the small intestine where, I think we all agree, it has no business being.
Gut flora create farts. But how do farts get from our large intestine to our anus hole? The answer is peristalsis.
Peristalsis is a process by which smooth muscles of the gastrointestinal tract expand and contract to "push" food, stool or farts in the right direction. You can feel a glob of food you ate (called a bolus) going down your esophagus, right? That's peristalsis in action. Similarly you can feel a turd or fart being forced towards your anus hole. Again, that's peristalis.
So that's the gist on farts. I'll end by tackling a minor controversy in the fart world: Should you hold in farts? Initially the answer seemed to be that it didn't matter; you would eventually fart out withheld gases in your sleep. However, the more modern take seems to argue that holding in farts can lead to some problems: bloating, constipation and even diverticulitis. I figure, why take the chance?
Fart freely my friends.
What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!