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The bacteria inside my gut.

Let's face it: Everybody does it. Brad Pitt, the Green Bay Packers, Hootie and the Blowfish - everybody. Every day. In fact, most of us pass gas an average of 14 times a day.

The weird thing is that even though everybody does it, it's nobody's fault. The phenomenon scientists call flatulence is simply a result of having millions of microbes living in your digestive system, the churning factory of organs that breaks down food so your body can absorb it (see diagram, p. 14). The bacteria hang out in your digestive system, munching on food you can't use. What they give you back is gas, the fuel that makes you fire. (Some thank-you for a nice, warm place to live and free meals, eh?!)


The digestive process starts before food even gets into your mouth. Just the thought of your mom's 18-secret-ingredient lasagna gets your mouth watering. You take that first bite and start chewing the food into smaller pieces - breaking it down physically. At the same time, digestive enzymes (proteins) in your saliva start to break the food down chemically - into the simple nutrients of which it's made (for example, simple sugars).

Having savored your mom's handiwork, you swallow, sending the partially digested food down a long tube called the esophagus into your stomach. In your stomach, more enzymes go to work on the lasagna to release more nutrients. Three or four hours later, the food - now resembling a mashed-up milky liquid - passes into your small intestine, a six-meter (20ft)-long, winding tube tightly coiled in your abdomen. Inside this tube, the digestive process continues. Your blood absorbs the digested nutrients and carries them to all parts of your body.

But hold on: Your body doesn't have enzymes to digest everything. Take those infamous beans, not to mention cabbage, onions, cherries, prunes, and a host of other high-fiber foods. These foods contain lots of oligosaccharides, a group of sugars found in some plant fibers. Your body has no enzymes to digest oligosaccharides. So foods containing them pass undigested into your colon, the 1.5-meter(5-ft)-long large intestine. That's where the bacteria go to work.

More than 5,000 species of microbes hang out in this lower end of your gut (the name scientists give to the whole digestive tract from mouth to anus). The bacteria couldn't ask for a better home. The colon is warm and moist - a perfect environment for bacterial growth and reproduction. And it contains none of the acids that kill bacteria in the stomach and small intestine. Best of all, the colon offers a steady food supply. All the microbes have to do is kick back and wait for your leftovers to drop in.


Then it's feeding time. To these critters, your leftovers represent opportunity, not waste. That's because the microbes have the enzymes to break down foods your body's enzymes can't touch. And they do the same thing with their food that you do with yours: They metabolize it - convert the nutrients to energy, which they use to build new cell structures.

Too bad for us that they do it right on the spot, in our large intestines. Because in the process of metabolizing nutrients, the bacteria give off gaseous wastes. (We, too, produce gas when our cells metabolize nutrients. But our waste gases dissolve into our blood and exit our bodies via our lungs.)

You may be familiar with some of the bacteria's gases: nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and methane. These gases make up most of the air you breathe, and a good 99 percent of the "atmosphere" in your large intestine. But they're not the ones that smell. It's the other one percent you have to watch out for.

No one's exactly sure which of the 200 trace gases is the stinker. The prime suspects are skatole and indole (by-products of protein digestion) and sulfide gases, which are responsible for the smell of rotten eggs.

But if you think you can stop flatulence by refusing to feed the bacteria the foods they like, forget it. Most foods contain at least some indigestible fiber for bacteria to feast on. And it wouldn't be very healthy to avoid these foods. Nutritionists and doctors say fiber helps prevent certain kinds of cancer and may also prevent heart disease.

The good news: Scientists are looking at ways to make the best-known offending foods a bit less offensive (see "What a gas!," right). Some researchers are going after the granddaddy of them all: the bean. They're working on ways to grow beans that are low in the offending oligosaccharides. To do that, they plan to snip out the genes that produce these sugars. That way, they'll deprive the bacteria of at least some of their feast.

For now, though, one thing is certain: The old playground ditty is true. Beans (and all other indigestible foods) are a musical fruit. But remember, the bacteria in your gut are the ones tooting the horns.
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Title Annotation:includes a related article on how to decrease gas production from certain foods
Author:Liles, George
Publication:Science World
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 17, 1995
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