Why Do I Feel Gassy on Airplanes?


Q: I often feel uncomfortably bloated during flights. Why is that, and is there anything I can do about it?

A day of air travel can throw a wrench into the inner workings of your digestive system, causing gas, bloating and the need to release some pressure.

That tightness you feel in your waistband on a flight? “This is a real thing,” said Dr. Melissa Hershman, a gastroenterologist at Oregon Health and Science University.

Some people — such as those with irritable bowel syndrome — are bothered by airplane gas and bloating more than others, said Dr. Baha Moshiree, a gastroenterologist at Atrium Health Wake Forest in Charlotte, N.C.

But, she said, understanding the causes of these symptoms can help you strategize how to avoid them.

We always have some gas in our digestive tracts. We swallow air when eating and drinking, Dr. Hershman said, and our gut microbes also produce gas.

When an airplane climbs and cabin pressure drops, that normal amount of gas expands, taking up more space in your stomach and intestines, she said. This is similar to what happens to a bag of chips or a plastic water bottle, Dr. Moshiree added. “It becomes all puffy.”

There isn’t much research on the topic, but in a 1969 study, 18 military men “agreed to avoid passing of gas” during a simulated flight. As their simulated altitude climbed from ground level to nearly 30,000 feet, their average abdominal gas more than quadrupled.

Being at high altitude also seems to slow down the muscle contractions that keep the contents of your digestive system moving, Dr. Moshiree said. Experts don’t know why this happens, she added. But it’s one reason that you may feel constipated on airplane travel days, and a sluggish gut can also allow more gas to build up.

Sitting for hours during a long flight doesn’t help, Dr. Hershman said — walking and other physical activity normally help keep the gastrointestinal tract “moving along.”

Travel stress and anxiety can also worsen gas and bloating, said Megan Riehl, a gastrointestinal psychologist at Michigan Medicine.

You can’t change the altitude or air pressure of your plane. But if flying makes you gassy and bloated, experts have suggestions for your next trip.

Watch what you eat. Starting the day before your departure, avoid foods that you know make you gassy, said Tamara Duker Freuman, a dietitian in New York City who specializes in digestive conditions. Common culprits include high FODMAP foods like beans, onions, garlic, wheat, and certain nuts, dairy products and fruits.

On your travel day, continue to avoid these foods. Consider packing meals or snacks that sit well with you, Dr. Riehl added, so you aren’t at the mercy of what’s available in the airport.

Stay hydrated. “Hydration is key” for avoiding constipation, which can worsen gas and bloating, Dr. Moshiree said. Bring a refillable water bottle so that you can sip water throughout the day. And avoid alcohol the day before and the day of travel, since it can be dehydrating, she added.

Coffee has a bad reputation for being dehydrating, but there’s no evidence that it is — or that coffee increases bloating, Ms. Freuman said.

For some people, carbonated beverages can increase gas symptoms, Ms. Freuman said. But for others, seltzer may help them burp a bit and reduce gas buildup. “Know thyself,” she said, and choose your beverages accordingly.

Use medications and supplements as needed. You can consider taking an over-the-counter medication like Gas-X or Mylanta before your flight, Dr. Hershman said. Or try an enzyme supplement like Beano or Fodzyme before eating, which may help reduce gas produced from digestion, she added.

Avoid gum. Chewing gum may ease ear discomfort while flying, but it can also cause you to swallow more air, Dr. Hershman said. If you’re concerned about bloating, try skipping the gum or limiting your chewing, she said.

Move your body. If you can, get up from your seat every hour or so, Ms. Freuman said. Try to find some space to reach toward your toes, or twist your midsection from side to side. These movements can help the gas spread out in your gut rather than pooling in one spot, she said.

Breathe deeply. If you’re stuck in your seat, diaphragmatic breathing may help reduce stress and relax your gut, Dr. Riehl said.

First, take a four-second inhale through your nose and feel your belly rising, she explained. Then, exhale for six seconds through your mouth and feel your belly fall.

‘Let it go.’ If gas is causing pain or discomfort, holding it in will make you feel worse, Dr. Riehl added. “It’s healthy to just let it out.”

Walk to the bathroom if you can. But if that’s not an option, let the engine noise be your cover and “just let it go,” she said.

“Trust me,” she said, “you’re not the only one farting on an airplane.”

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