What’s Behind Your Stomach Growling?

By , Category : General Health

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stomach growlingThe sensation and sound of your stomach growling is likely one you have heard at multiple points throughout your life.

Although commonly associated with hunger, stomach rumblings can and do come from other sources.

If you find that your stomach is growling when you’re not hungry or if your stomach is growling all the time, it’s likely that one of these other causes are involved.

If you’ve ever wondered why your stomach is growling or how to stop the stomach from growling, please read on.

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What Makes Your Stomach Growl?

The reason why your stomach gurgles, grumbles, and growls is quite simple. One of the key activities going on during digestion is a behaviour called peristalsis, a series of muscle contractions that moves food through the digestive tract. Various pockets of air and gasses flow through your stomach and intestines, and peristalsis squeezes these pockets and produces the noise and sensations we associate with a rumbling stomach. This process happens during the digestion of food and it also happens while the body is preparing itself for future activity. The difference is that when your digestive tract is full of food, these sounds are muffled and less noticeable.

What Makes Your Stomach Growl

In short, the main reason why your stomach growls is because gas and air get squeezed by muscle contractions and the lack of food makes the sounds and sensations carry better.

Other Causes of Stomach Growling

The key thing to keep in mind about stomach sounds is that they are the result of digestive activity, not necessarily stomach activity. This means that the sounds and sensations of a rumbling belly may have their origin within the intestines or bowel. Consequently, there are a few different digestive conditions or ailments that can cause altered or provoked rumblings.

Incomplete Digestion

Not everything you eat gets digested in one go. Certain foods such as those that contain lactose, gluten, wheat, or barley, are not fully digested if you have a condition such as lactose intolerance or celiac disease. This triggers the release of excess gas and causes gurgling noises. Alternatively, larger meals can sometimes lead to food getting left behind in the stomach which ends up getting digested at a later time.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

No one quite knows what causes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) but it’s a known source of stomach growling. During instances of IBS (1), the muscle contractions that govern digestion can become more powerful than normal. This leads to excess gas (and subsequent sounds), bloating, cramping, diarrhea, or constipation.

Crohn’s Disease

This is a form of inflammatory bowel disease. Crohn’s typically affects the end of the small intestine and the colon, and causes inflammation and irritation that can provoke various symptoms. The hyperactive bowel sounds, in the form of gurgling or rumbling, can sometimes be loud enough to hear without a stethoscope. They are caused by abdominal cramps and potentially from strengthened contractions brought on by inflammation. Diarrhea is common in cases of Crohn’s disease along with abdominal pain, cramping, bright red blood in the stool, fatigue, sometimes mouth ulcers, and sometimes a low fever (2).

Food Allergies or Poisoning

If you eat something that your body takes issue with, the irritation will provoke your intestinal tract to try and expel the offender as soon as possible. This can result in bowel or stomach gurgles similar to those of Crohn’s disease. Food poisoning can also cause stomach growling for the same reason. In all cases, your intestinal contractions become more forceful as the body tries to get rid of something it deems harmful. Diarrhea, gas, and bloating are common symptoms when this happens. An allergy or another food reaction is usually the reason behind why your stomach starts growling after eating.

Swallowed Air

If you take particularly large mouthfuls of food or use a straw, you are liable to swallow excess amounts of air. Although it’s normal to swallow some amount of air while eating—it’s almost impossible not to—ingesting too much creates air pockets or bubbles which travel through the intestine. This air is harmless but can sometimes make you feel bloated or gassy. It also results in more stomach noises since the bubbles will end up getting squeezed during peristalsis.

Constipation

As constipated stool builds up, gas can and will become trapped behind the fecal mass. This can cause stomach gurgling sounds as the intestines try to contract and pass the hardened stool. When it finally comes time to have a bowel movement, this increased intestinal action will provoke further gurgling and even a quivering sensation as the stool starts to move and trapped gas begins to flow more freely.

Enteritis

Enteritis (3) is the inflammation of the small intestine and is usually the result of eating tainted food or water. Inflammation can also spread to the stomach (gastritis) or large intestine (colitis). Enteritis comes in various sub-forms depending on whether it’s bacterial or viral and what the triggering pathogen is. Regardless of cause, enteritis usually results in abdominal pain, loss of appetite, vomiting, and explosive diarrhea. The increased bowel contractions that cause the diarrhea are also going to result in stomach growling sounds.

How to Make a Stomach Grumble Go Away

Since the causes of a rumbling stomach can vary, the exact treatment will depend on an accurate diagnosis. However, some causes of a rumbling stomach will not require intervention.

No Treatment Needed

Incomplete digestion and swallowed air do not require treatment and will resolve on their own with a bit of waiting. If the incomplete digestion is the result of an intolerance, a dietary adjustment will be needed to minimize symptoms and prevent recurrence. In the case of swallowed air, taking smaller bites and not using a straw is the primary method used to prevent repeat episodes.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Fiber can be a double-edged sword when dealing with IBS. On the one hand, it can reduce incidences of constipation. On the other, it can make cramping and gas (and stomach growling) problems worse. Other options are to avoid foods known to provoke your IBS, maintain proper fluid intake, exercise regularly, and limit your consumption of dairy (4).

Crohn’s Disease

Limit your intake of fat, spicy foods, dairy, and other items that provoke your symptoms. Fiber requires a bit of experimentation to figure out if the benefits outweigh the negatives, much as in the case of IBS. Maintaining a proper intake of fluids and eating five or six smaller meals a day instead of three larger ones may also help relieve constant stomach growling and other symptoms (5). Your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs to help.

Constipation

Exercise, water, fiber, and prune juice are your friends. Laxatives may also be used but they should not be relied on regularly since they can cause overdependence and can end up aggravating problems in the long run.

Enteritis and Food Poisoning

Mild or moderate cases of either of these will pass on their own within a few days. During this period, it’s important to get bed rest, keep up on the fluids, and eat bland foods when possible to avoid aggravating the stomach. If the culprit is found to be bacterial in nature, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics in more advanced cases.

When to See Your Doctor

A growling stomach in and of itself is not a cause for concern. It’s a normal bodily function and just one of the many sounds the stomach makes while going about its business. However, if stomach growling is accompanied by bloating, pains, diarrhea, or other signs of digestive distress, scheduling an appointment with your doctor is advisable. There are many possible reasons why your intestines can get thrown for a loop, and a proper diagnosis is the first step towards successful treatment.

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Dr. Jeffrey Shapiro, MD

About the Author, Browse Jeffrey's Articles

After receiving athletic and academic awards at Yale and Stanford, Jeff has coached those seeking peak wellness, appeared on ABC News 20/20 and served as a consultant for CBS News 60 Minutes and The Late Show with David Letterman. As the author of many research studies and practicing anesthesiology/critical care medicine for more than 20 years, Jeff can be your guide to common sense decision making regarding drugs, supplements and vitamins. With no corporate sponsors and no vitamins or supplements... Read Full Bio »