What's in a burp?

Image with file name: Michael Huckabee Ph.D. (2)6.jpg

By Michael Huckabee, Ph.D., professor and director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center physician assistant program. Dr. Huckabee worked as a physician assistant for 30 years, mostly in rural Nebraska.

A burp is an onomatopoeia, a word from a sound associated with the thing it describes (like sizzle and ping-pong). While a burp can be a short utterance, there is so much more to appreciate about our eructations.

As if you didn’t know, a burp is swallowed air subsequently expelled. Air sneaks into our stomach when we eat or drink, and if we guzzle something we’re likely to consume more air that must eventually come out. When coming up from the stomach, gases pass through the upper esophageal sphincter vibrating through what otherwise is a tight seal, causing the guttural belch. 

Carbonated beverages contain gas that contributes to a belch, as do some medications (metformin, a common diabetes medication, and fish oil capsules, among others).

Some medical problems such as peptic ulcers, acid reflux and hiatal hernias are associated with an unusual smell with the burp (e.g., rotten eggs) and may require an evaluation. 

Burping is a learned behavior; many of us have it mastered. Newborns are novices to the art so accumulated gas in their stomachs when feeding can become quite uncomfortable without a burp.

With the help of gravity (keeping the baby upright so the gas floats up) and patting the lower back (to help move the gas to the top of the stomach), the opening of the upper esophageal sphincter is pushed to release the primal burp. If we don’t get the gas to surface above whatever else is in the stomach, the upcoming burp will bring a bit of a mess with it.

After the universally cute stage of baby burping, the noise has a more mixed acceptance. It holds bragging rights in some circles from preschool forward (the 2012 world championship longest burp is 18.1 seconds). Certain cultures (including Germans, some Middle Easterners and Chinese) favor a strong burp as a compliment to a delicious meal. Others consider it rude (the Japanese, Italians and the French). My wife, though of German heritage, joins the latter.

While burping in humans is either a social compliment or a faux pas, in cattle it’s a world-wide controversy contributing to greenhouse gases and global warming. Bovine belching contains methane gas, a fossil fuel, and each cow emits 250-300 liters every day.

Herds numbering 51 million cattle place Argentina among the world’s top beef exporters, and the animals contribute 30 percent of the country’s greenhouse emissions.

So the Argentina National Institute of Agricultural Technology has designed a tank worn like a backpack on cows to capture the digestive gases. Rather than damaging weather trends, capturing the methane burps from one cow can keep a refrigerator running for a day.

Regardless of your opinion of the sound, we all live with our burps. The World Burping Federation (headquartered in Switzerland) seeks to “usher in a new era where belching is accepted.”

They lay claim to a “burp-talking” division, moving our eruptions from mere annoyances to a new art form. As the holidays promote some of our best belches, keep a look out for those talented few who may pave the way for a bright future of burping for all.

Through world-class research and patient care, UNMC generates breakthroughs that make life better for people throughout Nebraska and beyond. Its education programs train more health professionals than any other institution in the state. Learn more at unmc.edu.


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Vicky Cerino
UNMC Strategic Communications
(402) 559-5190
(402) 559-4353