The People's Perspective on Medicine

Can You Use Activated Charcoal to Fight Flatulence?

Some people fight flatulence with activated charcoal, but several other approaches also work quite well: Beano, bitters, Pepto-Bismol or herbs.

Have you ever wished you had a good way to fight flatulence? Sometimes changing your diet to include more legumes and green vegetables like cabbage or broccoli can backfire. Of course, you will probably be healthier, but you may also be embarrassed by smelly gas. One reader suggests activated charcoal as a remedy.

How Can You Fight Flatulence?

Q. When my husband and I were traveling in Mexico, we relied on activated charcoal for all our intestinal woes, including flatulence. Capsules take a little longer, or you can mix loose powder into water and drink it down. That is messier but you can feel it working from the time it hits your tongue. Be prepared to brush your teeth immediately to clear the charcoal residue. Don’t be surprised if your doctor pooh-poohs it, but charcoal has been a staple of our medicine cabinet for 30 years.

Activated Charcoal:

A. Activated charcoal is a time-honored remedy to fight flatulence. Supposedly, it absorbs smelly gases. However, there is little research to support this approach and some evidence to suggest that it does not work very well (American Journal of Gastroenterology, Jan. 1999). In addition, people who are taking medications should not take charcoal at the same time. It could potentially inactivate the medicine.

Beano:

Another option is Beano. It contains the enzyme alpha-galactosidase, made from the fungus Aspergillus niger. This enzyme helps break down hard-to-digest sugars in beans and vegetables like cabbage and cauliflower.. Scientists have found that it helps children as well as adults (Di Nardo et al, BMC Gastroenterology, Sep. 24, 2013).

The researchers concluded:

“Although larger and longer trials are needed to confirm this result, α-galactosidase seems to be a safe, well tolerated and effective treatment for gas-related symptoms in the pediatric population.”

Another study reached a similar conclusion:

“Alpha-galactosidase reduced gas production following a meal rich in fermentable carbohydrates and may be helpful in patients with gas-related symptoms”

(Tuck et al, Digestive Diseases and Sciences, online Jan. 2007). In addition, researchers have determined that oral alpha-galactosidase can relieve distress and fight flatulence in people with irritable syndrome if they eat gas-producing foods (Tuck et al, American Journal of Gastroenterology, Jan. 2018).

Herbs:

Several cultures have favorite herbs to fight flatulence. In Mexico, cooks add epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides) to beans as they simmer with the understanding that this will reduce the discomfort typically associated with beans. Yerba buena (Mentha citrata) is also popular.

On the Indian subcontinent, people are more familiar with hing, known in Europe and the Americas as asafoetida. Here is what one reader had to say.

Q. I have been reading about the problems some of your readers have with flatulence, and I would like to put forward a solution from an Indian kitchen. Placing a generous pinch of asafoetida (“hing”) powder on the tongue and washing it down with water removes flatulence in a matter of hours.

A. Asafoetida is a resin from the underground portions of the plant Ferula asafoetida. English speakers refer to it as stinking gum or devil’s dung, suggesting its strong unpleasant odor.

Traditional Indian herbal medicine practitioners recommend asafoetida for lung conditions as well as digestive disorders. It contains compounds that prevent blood clotting and lower blood pressure (Pharmacognosy Reviews, July 2012).

We understand that Indian cooks add hing to dishes that might otherwise cause flatulence and that it is valued as a culinary spice. Apparently it also has antifungal and anti-inflammatory activity and can be used to lower blood sugar (Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Mar. 8, 2011).

Although there are other ways to control gas or ease flatulence, hing is not well known in the US. Here, people are more likely to use peppermint or a drugstore remedy such as activated charcoal or Pepto-Bismol.

Pepto-Bismol:

Most people think about this familiar pink liquid as an aid for heartburn. There is, however, research to suggest the ingredient in Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate) can be helpful against smelly gas.

M.K. suggested P-B tablets:

“Here’s a good one. Take a Pepto-Bismol tablet every day. Helps absorb much of that smelly gas. It will turn your stool black, but no harm in one a day. I check with my doctor about safety and he said “no problem.” Pepto tabs also aid in keeping bad bacteria at bay when traveling.”

We are not completely comfortable recommending a daily dose of Pepto. The salicylate has aspirin-like activity and might interact with a number of other medications. You could also overdose on bismuth. We would reserve this remedy for occasional use and follow the dosing instructions on the label.

Angostura Bitters:

Bitters are another favorite remedy. Bartenders are the experts when it comes to bitters. That’s because they have been using the distinctive flavor of bitter herbs in mixed drinks like Manhattans and Old Fashioneds for a very long time. Ingredients may include quinine (from cinchona bark), wormwood, orange peel and gentian. Angostura bitters originated in Venezuela in 1824 and is one of the more famous brands. Like Swedish bitters, these concoctions have been used to treat digestive distress for centuries.

A waitress wrote to us years ago:

“Has anyone suggested Angostura bitters for gas? When I was a waitress and had that problem, someone suggested a teaspoon in a glass of 7-Up or just club soda. It worked immediately.”

The label on a bottle of Angostura bitters actually suggests one to four teaspoonfuls after meals for flatulence.

J.N. offered this testimonial:

“Angostura bitters works great for me for gas and heartburn. It took me a while to find it. It was in the liquor department of my grocery store.”

Probiotics:

The microbes that live in the digestive tract contribute to gas. Consequently, people who take certain probiotics report that they help fight flatulence. Researchers have identified probiotics with beta-galactosidase activity as helpful for those with lactose intolerance (Gingold-Belfer et al, Probiotics and Antimicrobial Proteins, online Jan. 7, 2019). Probiotics containing five different Lactobacillus and two Bifidobacteria strains reduced flatulence in a separate study (Seo et al, PLoS One, Sep. 22, 2017).

Keeping Track:

You may find it helpful to keep a diary of foods, medicines and supplements consumed and symptoms of flatulence to discover what is causing the trouble. Avoiding the worst culprits to prevent the problem can go a long way towards providing relief. You can learn more about using a “fart chart” to fight flatulence in our Guide to Digestive Disorders.

You may also wish to listen to Dr. Tieraona Low Dog explain natural ways to prevent or relieve gas. She recommends taking bitters before a meal to fight flatulence.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Charcoal works. I had food poisoning and was so bloated that it was stressing my rib cage. Within a half an hour after taking the charcoal, a tablespoon in a glass of water, my bloating disappeared .

I have been having a problem lately with flatulence, which I think is being triggered by soup made with lentils and other meals recently with black beans. Before going out for Mexican last night I drank a glass of diet tonic water with a teaspoon of the Angostura bitters, and then after coming home I drank another glass of the same thing, and then with lunch today I drank a glass of sparkling water with a teaspoon of the bitters, but have been suffering from gas all afternoon!
So that remedy is not working, but I may try it with two or three teaspoons of the bitters.

The food diary to find the offending food is probably the best solution: for some it is vegetables of the cabbage family, for others dairy or legumes; for me the offending food is all curbits: melons, cucumbers and squash. As we get older the hormones in our body affect the bacteria in our digestive tract, bringing intolerances such as gas, flatulence, diarrhea or constipation.

Charcoal worked as a filter for me so that I didn’t stink, but I still had gas.

I now take a t-spoon of Fennel seed daily and almost never have gas.

An inexpensive, natural remedy.

Along with a flatulence problem, can anyone suggest a remedy for excessive belching? For me (a female) this happens hundreds of times every day! Started 35 years ago when I was in my 40s. Daytime, nighttime, anytime, all the time. Aggravating and sometimes embarrassing!

I have the same problem for a similar amount of time. My GI doctor explained to me it was because I’m overweight which is true.
Am attempting to loose abt 30 pounds to see if he’s correct 🤔
Probably is!

When I gave up dairy my very odoriferous gas problem went away

Undiagnosed celiac disease caused me much belching and gas. Avoiding wheat, rye and barley (malt) gave amazing relief.

I stumbled on my solution by accident. I love cucumbers but they produce gas in me. One day after eating some, I ate a ginger cookie. In less than an hour, the gas was gone. Now I keep ginger capsules in my cupboard. I also found that munching a couple of ginger mints helps also. They tuck into my purse, and I don’t need water. Although they can be a little hot.

For years I struggled with not just flatulence, but very foul smelling flatulence. It was constant and very stressful. Nothing I tried worked. For health reasons not related to this problem, I cut sugar, including high sugar fruits for a time, and my gas problem disappeared. I do eat any fruit these days but I watch my sugar consumption and have not had problems since. Yeah!

I think that fennel helps.

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