Your body lets you know every day, in a variety of ways, that it is alive and well. One such way is the familiar growl of your stomach, which to most of us signals hunger. But, are all those rumbles and noises actually coming from your stomach? Are they really a sign you need to eat? The answer to both questions is a resounding No.
You may not realize stomach growling actually originates as muscular activity in both your stomach and your small intestine. To better understand what causes it, let’s take a closer look at how your body digests the foods and beverages you consume. As you probably know, one of the primary components of your digestive system is a long hollow tube called the esophagus, which runs from the back of your mouth all the way to your anus.
Your esophagus connects with all of your various organs along your gastrointestinal tract, such as your gallbladder, liver, pancreas and stomach, as well as your small and large intestines. The walls of your esophagus are primarily composed of layers of smooth muscle, which are squeezed and contracted as a means of digesting and propelling food through your body. This process is called peristalsis. As peristalsis does its work, the food and beverages you consume are steadily being moved along from your stomach to your anus.
Along the way, they are being mixed with a variety of digestive juices. These juices help your body transform liquids and solids into a gooey mixture known as chyme. Now, this is where the growling noises factor into the process. The funny noises and rumbling sounds you experience are not hunger pangs; they are caused by pockets of trapped air and gasses that are compressed as your body churns food particles and chyme through your digestive system. Typically, stomach growling is no cause for concern.
You may be surprised to know that growling sounds can happen at any time not just when you’re hungry or when your digestive system is relatively empty. Sometimes the noises are less noticeable because the presence of food in your body can help somewhat to muffle their sound, as well as lessen their intensity.
Because digestion is an ongoing process, your stomach sends signals to your brain approximately two hours after you eat to start up the peristalsis contractions again. As reported by professor Mark Andrews, a specialist in physiology and biophysics at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, explains what happens next, noting that these contractions generally subside after you eat:
- Receptors in the walls of your stomach sense the absence of food, triggering electrical activity in the form of a reflex generation of waves known as migrating myoelectric complexes (MMCs).
- Hunger contractions result as MMCs travel from the lower region of your stomach, through your small intestine and into your colon.
- This process not only cleans up any bacteria, food or mucus that may have been missed earlier, but also initiates the process to make you hungry for your next meal.
- Those contractions, which may continue for 10 to 20 minutes and repeat every one to two hours until your next meal, produce vibrations and the rumbling noise commonly associated with stomach growling.
If you have ever experienced diarrhea, you are already familiar with what is meant by hyperactive bowel sounds. As a refresher, hyperactive bowel sounds are characterized by the combination of:
- Peristalsis of your intestines.
- Higher levels of fluid and gas.
- Amplified sounds of watery stools.
Various mal-absorption states can also result in exaggerated bowel sounds. Two of the main ones that receive considerable attention are:
Lactose intolerance: This condition is characterized by your body’s lack of a sufficient level of the enzyme needed to digest lactose in your small intestine. As such, milk sugar will reach your colon intact where it will be fermented by colon bacteria. Those microbes release hydrogen and other products that attract fluids and stimulate gut contractions, which will intensify any abdominal sounds.
Celiac disease: This illness results from your body’s inability to process gluten, which is a major protein found in barley, rye and wheat. Primarily characterized by inflammation of the mucosa in your small intestines, celiac disease also causes your intestinal villi to atrophy. Villi are the finger-like projections lining the walls of your small intestine that help your body absorb nutrients. When your villi flatten, you may suffer from serious nutritional deficiencies due to mal-absorption. Diarrhea and muscle wasting are other possible side effects of celiac disease.
A very serious instance involving hyperactive bowel sounds takes place when you have an intestinal obstruction. Obstructions can be partial or total, preventing the passage of food and liquids. They are characterized by increased contractions that attempt to force air, liquids and solids through a narrowing of your intestine. As such, obstructions produce unusually loud, often high-pitched, sounds. Those sounds are caused by the buildup of food, fluids, gas and gastric acids behind the site of the blockage.
Most obstructions are characterized by symptoms such as abdominal swelling, constipation, nausea and vomiting. Intestinal blockages are considered to be an emergency situation because your intestine could rupture under such intense pressure, causing harmful bacteria and waste products to leak into your abdominal cavity. Given that it is a life-threatening illness that cannot be prevented, immediate diagnosis and treatment of an intestinal blockage is crucial to your survival.
There are a few situations in which it is normal for your intestines to be quiet, including:
- During sleep.
- At certain times of the day.
- Following abdominal surgery.
That said, a complete absence of intestinal sounds that occurs during an attack of severe abdominal pain could be an indication of a serious intra-abdominal event. If so, you should treat it as an emergency, one that may require surgery and get to your nearest hospital immediately.
Unless the sounds your stomach and small intestine are making are accompanied by diarrhea, abdominal pain or other symptoms, they are probably normal. That said, it is also important to note stomach rumbling is different from, and unrelated to, other gassy phenomena such as belching, bloating and flatulence. While any, or all, of these may occur in the same person, they are causally unrelated. If you feel your bowel sounds are abnormally loud or if they are causing you anxiety or embarrassment, be sure to discuss your concerns with your doctor.
While there is nothing you can or need to do to curtail your body’s digestive noises, you can take proactive steps to prevent a more serious intestinal issue. By far, your best defense against intestinal problems is to optimize your gut microbiome. One of the best and least expensive ways to do so is to begin by eliminating sugar and processed foods from your diet, while adding a variety of fermented foods.
The beneficial bacteria in fermented foods will aid your digestion and provide detoxification support. Consuming a variety of fermented foods and beverages is important because each food will inoculate your gut with a mix of different microorganisms. As such, your digestive tract will be stronger and more resilient against bacteria and other toxic invaders.
Fortunately, with a little time and effort, you can cultivate fermented foods at home. While there are several options, two of the easiest and most popular types are:
- Cultured dairy, such as yogurt, kefir and sour cream.
- Cultured vegetables, including pureed baby foods.
If, for whatever reason, fermented foods are not an option for you, consider taking a daily probiotic supplement. Probiotics are supplements designed to increase your beneficial bacteria, the largest concentration of which is found in your gut. By supporting the health-promoting bacteria in your body, probiotics help keep harmful microbes in check.
If you recently have taken or currently are taking an antibiotic, be sure to also take a probiotic to repopulate your gut with healthy bacteria. This is necessary because most antibiotics kill not only the target organism that might be causing your infection (which is a good thing), but also your beneficial bacteria. Keep in mind that many prescribed antibiotics are unnecessary and may inflict more harm than good. As such, I recommend you carefully weigh your options before taking them. Given the risks of antibiotic resistance, be selective and, if possible, restrict antibiotic use to only the medical situations that mandate the use of them.
For sure, your body will continue to make growling noises. Whenever you feel and hear that familiar rumble, let it remind you that you have a human form that is intricately made and wonderfully complex. Unless the growling sounds are bothersome, or accompanied by abdominal pain or other alarming symptoms, there is little cause for concern. As always, your best defense against more serious digestive issues is to act now to proactively maintain your health.