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Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Manage Flatulence When Flying

This is the chapter from my book 'The Best Things To Eat and Drink When You Fly' on Flatulence. I hope it gives those of you who fly frequently some helpful insights and practical tips on this delicate topic. :)

Chapter 4 -- Flatulence, aka ‘Gas’

Bottoms up!  A common toast to good health – quite pertinent to this topic J

 Go on…. feel free. …come out with it…. (no puns intended)….say it --it’s gross!

Being the recipient of second-hand gas, or even the protagonist of a single-whammy ‘great escape’ or a series of silent ‘releases’, is embarrassing, unpleasant, and, at times, upsetting – especially if the emission(s) are particularly pungent or foul L  And, admit it, we all have our usual ways on how we deal with it when it happens: 1) stay aloof acting as if nothing happened, 2) shake our head with a grimacing frown -- while motioning to the person in front of us, next to us, behind us, across from us – indicating to our seat- and cabin-mates that we ‘knowingly’ disapprove, 3) the blink-quick apology, hoping it ‘all’ goes away fast and all is forgotten and forgiven – ah – at least, until the next ‘event’ happens.

Flatulence does not discriminate. It occurs in first, business, world, premier, club, ‘whatever’ class just as often, if not more so, than in economy. It afflicts CEOs. presidents, top executives, lords and ladies, famous celebrities, and ‘whomever’ who sit in the luxuriously spacious and revered private seats and cabins at the front of the plane , as much as it does the folk who sit in economy, at the back.

My worst encounter was the one time, by a stroke of luck, I flew first class. The obvious ‘top man’ type across from me was pleasant enough while we were sitting. But, then, a couple hours into the flight, he undressed in full-sight, put pajamas on, tucked himself comfortably in his cot, and slept like a baby for the rest of the ten hour journey. I, on the other hand, not only didn’t sleep a wink after this, but had to endure his snoring and frequent ‘releases’, up until 20 minutes before we landed! It was the most horrible flight I’ve ever had! The silver lining in that story is that I no longer pine for a first-class ticket. 

There’s more good news. People, I believe, generally do not intentionally want or set out to be crudely insensitive or offensive to others. The fact of the matter is – it’s physics! That is, there are clear, well-founded explanations as to why we feel ‘gassier’ -- why we accumulate a greater amount of flatulence -- when we fly. As altitude increases, pressure decreases. And, according to the laws of thermodynamics, when pressure decreases, volume increases – including our bowel air volume!

So, increased bowel air volume does not discriminate. No matter who you are, what shape you’re in, what your muscle: fat ratio is, what your knowledge of air etiquette is, and what you’ve eaten or drunk been before your flight, you will feel the effects of this ‘ideal gas law’. But, there are things you can do to minimize flatulence – modify how much you produce-- and/or to neutralize it -- modify how foul or pungent your gas will be.

Dietary Modifications To Prevent or Minimize Flatulence

1)      Although cruciferous vegetables are highly recommended as part of an optimal healthy diet, it is best to avoid cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, kale, bok choi, the day or two before and during flying. Here is a more complete list of cruciferous vegetables:

Cruciferous Vegetables

  • Arugula
  • Bok choy
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Collard greens
  • Daikon radish
  • Horseradish
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Land cress
  • Mustard greens
  • Radish
  • Rutabaga
  • Shepherd's purse
  • Turnip
  • Watercress

2) Avoid foods that are notoriously known for producing large amounts of gas, such as beans, lentils, starchy peas, other pulses, onions and artichokes; the cruciferous vegetables mentioned above; some fruits, particularly raisins, apples, prunes; some breads and high-fiber foods; and dairy products. You probably know, yourself, what particular foods give you gas, so, avoid them before you fly!

For beans and foods made with beans, like chili, Beano supplements can help decrease gas and may even help with decreasing gas in other foods.

Other foods and drinks containing sweeteners called sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, (such as sugar-free gum or slimming products), or a type of sugar called fructose (such as the sugar in fruit juice), can also cause flatulence. In Chapter 6–Other GI Issues, there is a special diet that helps people who suffer from functional gastrointestinal upset for no particular known reason, called the FODMAP-free diet.  Foods and ingredients high in FODMAPs (which stands for ‘fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols’) can aggravate the occurrence of painful gas. Have a look at this diet and if you see foods on the list that cause you increased gas, avoid them and choose from the ‘suitable alternatives’ list: FODMAP-free diet

3) Be well-hydrated! Drink still water or another type of still, flat fluid8 oz. (240 ml) for every hour of flight—water is best, but electrolyte-rich drinks are also good provided they do not contain too much sugar. Avoid carbonated beverages, too much coffee or tea, except for herbal teas and infusions, especially, ginger and peppermint teas, both of which have been found to settle gaseous intestines. Avoid excessive alcoholic drinks.

4) Avoid milk and milk products, especially if you know you are prone to feeling gassy with these foods, even if you are not lactose-intolerant. Lact-Aid supplements can help decrease gas from milk and milk products.

Yogurt, especially plain yogurt that contains live bacterial cultures, should be well-tolerated. Yogurt(s) containing live cultures are part of a group of foods called probiotics, which have been known to help relieve flatulence. Probiotic foods are those that involve fermentation in their production; including miso, pickles, sauerkraut and fermented dairy products such as yogurt, as stated above, and kefir. Other probiotics include: sourdough bread, tempeh, sauerkraut, onions, oats.

Of course, any probiotics, such as onions, that may be gas-producing, need to be avoided while in flight.

5) Eat as basic, fresh, and as balanced as you can! Eating a well-balanced diet in portions that are appropriate for your needs will help you feel lighter and more comfortable for flying. For more specific guidelines on how you can do this, see Chapter 3 on Weight Management and Control. Eating healthy enhances overall gastrointestinal health and will enable a healthy bowel movement before your flight. This often decreases gas and flatulence.

Avoid rich, fatty, too-sugary, fried foods and foods that are too spicy. All of these types of foods may interfere with your ability to have a good, thorough bowel movement before your flight.

6) It is also important to chew foods well and to avoid gulping and eating too quickly to decrease the probability of swallowing air between bites and sips.. Dividing meals into smaller, more frequent ‘feedings’ also may help.

7) Avoid chewing gum while in flight as this increases the probability of swallowing air. If you want to chew gum to freshen your breath, wait until it’s almost time to land.

Taking over-the-counter charcoal pills and tablets have also been suggested to decrease flatulence during flights. There are some attempts to try to install charcoal filters in seat cushions and blankets on airplanes to control unpleasant odors and effects of the inevitable increased flatulence associated with air travel.

Just having an awareness of the intestinal challenges we face when airborne is a great help that will guide our choices away from foods that will increase flatulence.  Flatulence will happen, nonetheless, but at least we will be more empathetic and forgiving toward one another as, we’re all in the same boat on this one – I mean – plane! J


Pommergaard HC, Burcharth J, Fischer A, et al. Flatulence on airplanes: just let it go. N Z Med J 2013 Feb 15; 126(1369)68-74.

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