Are You Hungry? Or Just Full of Hot Air?
Whether you notice them or not, your body makes lots of noises. The pop and creak of your joints, or the sound it makes when you pass gas, may not alarm you. But it may feel odd to hear your stomach growl or gurgle.
“We get asked this a lot,” says Ben Levy MD, a gastroenterologist at The University of Chicago Medicine. “Patients sometimes feel uncomfortable if they can hear their stomach sounds.”
What’s going on in there? A symphony of normal digestion and hunger.
The Post-Meal Gurgle
When you hear noises in your stomach after you’ve eaten, it’s the sound of peristalsis, or smooth muscles contracting and pushing your food down your small bowel and into your colon.
There’s even a medical term for these sounds: borborygmus.
“Think of your stomach like a washing machine,” Levy says. “Food and liquid is being mixed together along with the air we breathe in as we’re eating. Food, liquid, and air pass through the digestive tract and gurgling is a combination of those factors.”
Stress can also cause your stomach to gurgle, whether or not you’ve just eaten.
The Hunger Factor
You walk into a pizzeria, smell fresh dough baking, and your stomach growls. That’s because your brain has told your stomach to release an appetite-stimulating hormone called ghrelin that tells your intestines and stomach to contract. The rumbling you hear is the movement of those organs. Think of it as hunger you can hear.
Not hungry? Certain foods, like peas, lentils, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale, may be hard for your system to break down. They can make your stomach growl, even if your appetite is snoozing.
Foods with artificial sweeteners, like diet soda and sugarless gum, can also be difficult to digest.
Keep a food diary for a few weeks to see if there’s a pattern.
“The main thing I look for is dairy products,” Levy says. “Lactose intolerance, or the inability to digest lactose, the sugar in milk, is very common.”
Why at Night?
You might be hungry, especially if your last meal of the day didn’t have enough protein to keep you feeling full longer. Your stomach may also make noise if you’ve had a big meal before bed, especially if it was high in fat or included a lot of alcohol. Or maybe you just notice it more if everything else is quieter at night.
Nothing to Worry About
Stomach noises are a normal part of hunger and digestion. If all that’s going on is some sounds, there’s no need for concern.
Call your doctor if the sounds are accompanied by pain, bloating, or changes in bowel movements, like loose stools or no bowel movements for days.
But What If It’s Really Loud?
“When water passes through pipes, you can hear it in the plumbing. Same thing happens in your stomach,” Levy says. “It’s the acoustics of your abdomen: Most bowel sounds are completely harmless and doctors use this to our advantage. When we put the stethoscope on your abdomen, we’re listening for normal bowel sounds or high-pitched sounds that may indicate obstruction.”
Call your doctor if you have loud bowel sounds and concerning symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, or rectal bleeding.
How Can I Stop Those Noises?
Walk around a bit after you eat – don’t exercise; just walk – to help with the involuntary muscle movement that creates noise when you digest food. And try these tips:
- Work on managing your stress. Take time to chill out, prioritize, and say no when you can.
- Have a meal or snack.
- Sip water throughout the day.
- Drink through a straw.
- Avoid foods that create excess gas, including sodas and sugar substitutes.
- Eat slower.
- Keep your mouth closed when you chew.
- If you smoke, quit. Your doctor can help you get started with this.
- Don’t drink too much water when you exercise.