When I have a really bad episode coming the first sign is eggy, sulphurous burps. For me these eggy burps are always followed within minutes or hours (each episode varies) by excruciating upper abdominal pain then sometimes by vomiting and always by diarrhoea. I have mentioned eggy burps to every doctor I’ve seen over the years and never had an explanation of why these occur or how to stop them. Even the more verbose doctors who, quite frankly, loved the sound of their voice were more keen to explain to me the technicalities of bowel innervation than why I was belching pure rotten egg stench. I’ve had various theories and none seemed to fit completely. I have repeatedly searched the Internet – never the most reliable source for symptom analysis – and found various herbal remedies and personal accounts which do little to shed light on the physiological processes involved.
Bacterial infection is the most common cause of eggy burps but the effects are short term, gone after the immune system or antibiotics evict the bad bacteria. Having an extremely high protein diet (bodybuilders beware) is frequently associated with eggy burps. Infection with the Giardia parasite is another increasingly common cause. There are a lot of people that believe these repeated symptoms of eggy burps, stomach pain and diarrhoea are as a result of one initial Giardia infection (giardasis) that somehow recurs or left damage in the digestive system in its wake.
I know the awful egg smell comes from hydrogen sulphide being produced somewhere in the digestive system and bubbling it’s way up and out through your mouth. Hydrogen sulphide (or sulfide) can be produced by the bacterial breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen – anaerobic digestion. So what causes an environment in your gut where anaerobic digestion takes over the usual digestive process?
It seems to me that anaerobic digestion could be encouraged in a stomach that does not empty properly. I have found that my symptoms are worst if I eat food that contains too much fat. In a previous post I discussed how eating fatty foods could cause biliary colic type symptoms due to irregular spasms of the bowel. If these irregular spasms also cause the stomach to have delayed emptying or even completely prevents emptying at times then this could explain the bad smells as well. Fat is difficult to digest and has a slow transit time through your digestive system. If you had a digestive dysfunction (gastroparesis, gastric stasis) where food passes more slowly than usual through your gut then food that passes even slower would effectively get stuck and begin to stagnate. If you have ever collected up your food waste for separate disposal to your other household waste (think green) then you’re aware certain foods begin to smell very strongly quite quickly and others just decompose without much fuss. Imagine this process occurring in your stomach. It’s a big bag we’re pouring food and drink into regularly throughout the day – if that food gets stuck it’s going to start to smell and smell bad. This theory for me explains the ‘delayed reaction’, why if I sneak a bit of my husbands pizza crust one evening after dinner then I don’t get the eggy burps until the following afternoon. The pizza crust is still there along with a rancid soup of partially digested foods. The stomach reacts to evict this noxious concoction as quickly as possible – if it can’t go down then it comes up! If some does make it’s way down into your intestine then in those with an already sensitive, ‘irritable’ bowel it passes out extremely quickly. So slow stomach transit time is followed by extremely rapid exit time!
In a normal functioning digestive system the stomach emptying process begins within about 20-30 minutes of eating a normal meal and the stomach is mostly emptied after about 3 hours. The higher the fat content the longer the emptying time, if the meal is less solid (i.e. soup) then transit time will be faster. So is the solution simply to eat less – or just soup? I’ve found from my experimentations with food that only eating soup does not help as much as would be hoped. A lot of soups you can buy in the shops or restaurants are very high in fats, plus the liquid state does not stimulate the stomach enough to begin emptying. Smoothies also tend to include hard to digest fruit skins and other indigestible fibres plus fruit acids. Small snacks are not large enough to stimulate the stomach to begin emptying. Large fatty meals are too much for the stomach to process efficiently resulting in stinky ‘leftovers’. I’ve also experimented with probiotics in the hope that introducing ‘good’ bacteria’ would prevent the proliferation of ‘bad’ bacteria which could create the environment where hydrogen sulphide is produced. Unfortunately my experiments did not produce definitively positive results for but it may work for others!
The best ways I’ve found to prevent eggy burps are:
- to eat regular small meals (i.e. risotto)
- avoid hard to digest foods (e.g. fats, insoluble fibres, fruit skins, any meat except chicken and turkey)
- try not to eat any later than 4 hours before bedtime
- exercise regularly to physically assist movement through the bowel