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Why Do I Feel Gassy on Airplanes?

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….

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