Is Holding in a Fart Bad for You?

Close-up of people sitting in chairs

Women claim to have been holding in their farts for years (my mother won't even talk about passing gas!). Guys, on the other hand, are much more likely to find it really funny to crop dust on an elevator or slip a silent killer in the middle of the room.

Even the crassest among us, however, have to admit that there are times when airbrushing the boxers is simply not appropriate. For example, it's definitely not a selling point during a job interview. What are the consequences of holding in your fart in these instances?

Is It Harmful to Hold Your Horses?

Maybe. It is not very likely to cause any actual damage, but it is likely to be uncomfortable.

We've all done it at some point. If someone did a study on gas retention during first dates as opposed to married couples watching TV at home, the difference would be staggering. But since we aren't all dead, that's some pretty good corollary evidence that keeping your methane to yourself is not life-threatening.

If you can't get rid of the gas in your gut, it can be painful, but there might be other causes of abdominal pain that are much more likely to be a problem. Bloating and distension are real complaints, but they might not have very much to do with flatulence even though it feels as if you need to fart. If you're making methane faster than you're tooting your horn, it's certainly going to put pressure on the GI tract. The thing is, just because you feel bloated doesn't mean your abdomen is actually distended or that the amount of pressure in your intestines is at dangerous levels.

At least one study found that the perception of discomfort is higher when you choose not to let a fart go versus when there's a physical reason why you can't fire the retro rocket. The way the gut triggers the brain to let us know that we need to break wind is part of the reason this happens. The increased pressure causes the feeling of bloating and the urge to let it fly. If you're ignoring the feeling, it means you're hyper-aware that you're building a backdraft. It's the awareness that makes it so uncomfortable.

Elementary Alimentary: How Farts Form

Spoiler alert: The following descriptions might make you not want to eat ever again.

The gastrointestinal (GI) system starts at your lips and ends at your anus. There are several names for the GI system: GI tract, alimentary canal, and gut (usually refers to the parts that come after the esophagus) are the most common.

You eat or drink nutritious and delicious food, chewing what needs to be chewed with your teeth, then swallow it into the esophagus where it drains into the stomach—which might remind you of a bota bag or a whoopee cushion, depending on your hobbies—and gets more broken down with acids. The stomach churns the food and acid mix in much the same way you might mix a marinade with meat in a plastic bag.

At the bottom of the stomach, the slurry of food and stomach juice is poured into the small intestine. The small intestine is a velvety-soft 20-foot-long garden hose in your abdomen. It's about an inch wide and it has muscles running through it that contract and push its contents along in a wave-like motion, not unlike that of a 1960s cartoon fire hose.

The small intestine is filled with bacteria. This is where the magic happens. Most of the nutrients from our food are absorbed through the walls of the small intestine. Different sections of the small intestine absorb different things, and each has its own name.

The final part of the journey happens in the large intestine (aka the rectum). This is where the last bits of nutrients from the bacteria-laden contents of the small intestine are absorbed, as well as water. This is how fecal matter is formed into a consistency that makes it disposable.

Through the whole process of moving fecal matter (food plus bacteria) through the intestines, methane gets in the way. It doesn't stop the movement, but if the walls of the intestine are kept away from the contents because there are bubbles of gas in the way, the contents aren't moved along. The wave action of the walls of the intestine pushes the gas along first.

Holding in that rump roar just keeps those bubbles of gas in the gut. Nothing of substance can really move along until the gas is gone. The fact that nothing is moving, even though the signals coming from the gut are telling the brain that movement really needs to happen, is the reason why the whole thing feels so uncomfortable.

Pressure changes also make a difference. Does flying make you fart? It does for a lot of people. The airplane is pressurized, but not to ground level. That's why our ears pop as we're taking off and while we're coming in for a landing. It's also the reason that bag of chips you bought at the little market by the gate is puffed up like a beach ball at cruising altitude (should've had yogurt; learn why below).

The little bubble of methane you've been brewing since lunch has a lot more pressure—relatively—at 20,000 feet than it did on the tarmac. Now it's setting off alarm bells in your brain telling you that you need to move it out of the way. Luckily for you (but not for your seatmate), your gut is built to efficiently move that methane toward the exit.

You can't win. Eventually, all that rectal turbulence is going to achieve release. Worse yet, if there's a decent collection of solids and bacteria in the large intestine, then the resulting tailwind is going to stink. So, follow along with polite society when necessary, but once you're outside and away from others (or at least where no one can peg it on you), let 'er rip!

How to Keep From Flapping Your Cheeks

It's all about the gut—what you put in determines what you'll get out. The right foods can help you avoid the need to announce your presence. Your gut is a cornucopia of bacteria and although it sounds gross, it's important for health. Gut bacteria is essential for proper digestion and helps the immune system. There are multiple theories on other benefits of gut bacteria and the microbiome, as well.

Methanobrevibacter is the bacteria voted most likely to give you gas. It's even in the name: methane. At least one study found that eating probiotics can help reduce three different bacteria strains from the gastrointestinal tract, methanobrevibacter one of them. More importantly, the study found that reducing methanobrevibacter really did reduce farts.

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  1. Malagelada, J., Accarino, A., & Azpiroz, F. (2017). Bloating and abdominal distension: old misconceptions and current knowledgeThe American Journal Of Gastroenterology112(8), 1221-1231. doi:10.1038/ajg.2017.129

  2. Serra, J., Azpiroz, F., & Malagelada, J. (2001). Mechanisms of intestinal gas retention in humans: impaired propulsion versus obstructed evacuationAmerican Journal Of Physiology - Gastrointestinal And Liver Physiology281(1), G138-G143. doi:10.1152/ajpgi.2001.281.1.G138

  3. Seo M, Heo J, Yoon J, Kim S-Y, Kang Y-M, Yu J, et al. Methanobrevibacter attenuation via probiotic intervention reduces flatulence in adult human: A non-randomised paired-design clinical trial of efficacy. PLoS ONE 12(9): e0184547. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0184547

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