Does suppressing the urge to toot endanger one’s health?

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Dear Cecil: My mother has always told me that the real way to spell relief is f-a-r-t. I have always been a person closely attuned to what is truly natural in myself and others and would appreciate an answer to a problem that has haunted me since childhood. If gas pains are caused by intestinal gas, then how come I never feel better when I fart? All I ever feel is embarrassed. Lauran P., Washington, D.C.


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Clearly, Lauran, you are one of the millions of innocent victims of a taboo that has tyrannized mankind since the dawn of time. As early as the 14th century we find a “Boke [Book] of Curtasye” sternly warning, “Beware of thy hinder parts from gun-blasting.” Yet the truth of the matter is that farting is a natural — nay, a beautiful — process by which we bring our inner being into harmony with the universe. The real question we ought to ask is, what irreversible physical and psychic traumas do we inflict upon ourselves by our prejudice against gas? We can but speculate. The doctors at the medical school at Salerno in the 11th century wrote that “those who suppress [farts] risk dropsy, convulsions, vertigo, and frightful colics.” The famous essayist Montaigne sagely observed, “God alone knows how many times our bellies, by the refusal of one single fart, have brought us to the door of an agonising death.” The Roman emperor Claudius is said to have been so alarmed at the prospect of expiring while attempting to stifle one’s natural impulses that he considered issuing an imperial decree making it permissible to fart at the dinner table.

Today, with the advent of modern research methods, we know that few deaths can be attributed directly to this problem. But at least one researcher (G. Wynne-Jones, Lancet, 1975) has suggested that (ahem) “Flatus Retention is the Major Factor in Diverticular Disease.” This ailment involves the formation of diverticula, which are sacs or pouches that develop at weak points in the intestines. In other words, by holding your wind, you may be causing your innards to blow up like a balloon. Admittedly this is a minority view. Most people think that diverticular disease results from constipation caused by lack of roughage and too much sugar in the diet.

Still, intestinal gas is clearly a force to be reckoned with. Dr. Michael Levitt, a Minneapolis gastroenterologist who is probably the world’s leading expert on flatulence, tells of a somewhat gassy patient who was having a rectal polyp cauterized one day and unexpectedly exploded on the operating table. No fooling. An electric spark caused the hydrogen in the patient’s bowels to detonate, blasting the surgeon backwards against the wall and slamming the patient’s head into the table. The explosion also ripped a six-inch hole in the patient’s large intestine. Luckily, they were able to sew him up OK and the poor guy recovered. In view of the potentially dire consequences, therefore, my advice is simple. One does, of course, want to be considerate of one’s fellow creatures, particularly in elevators. But when in doubt, by all means let it out.

Cecil Adams

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