In social situations, there’s nothing worse than your stomach doing the talking for you.
The grunting, growling, egregious sounds emanating from the human belly are letting you — and sometimes everyone around you — know that it’s time for you to eat.
But maybe you really don’t need a sandwich or a slice. That’s because a gurgling belly doesn’t always mean it’s time for lunch.
“The noise you, and potentially everyone else is hearing, is perfectly normal, but it isn’t always related to the need for food, or even your stomach,” says gastroenterologist Dr. Patricia Raymond, Assistant Professor of Clinical Internal Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
That so-called “stomach growl” we attribute solely to our bellies also comes from our intestines, specifically the some 20 feet of small intestine.
It begins with your mouth
And it often has to do more with the digestion of food we already ate, than it does with our need for a new snack.
The easiest way to think of the digestive system is that it begins with your mouth. Each bite of food we take gets churned up in the stomach, which then allows that food to travel to your small intestine.
Once your lunch reaches the small intestine, enzymes are released so the body can absorb all the nutrients from your lunch. This process relies on peristalsis, which is nothing more than a series of muscular contractions.
“What you’re hearing during digestion is the sounds of air and fluid sloshing around, kind of the like the wash cycle of your washing machine,” Raymond says. “The technical name for that noise is borborygmi, which is great thing to know if you’re playing Words with Friends.”
Your digestive tract is also on a seemingly rigid schedule.
In general, a few hours after your stomach is empty, peristalsis begins again, even if you haven’t had a bite. During this time, “. . . the potential for hearing gurgling is pretty high since there’s nothing there to muffle all that action,” Raymond says.
There’s also the brain-gut connection.
If your belly really is grumbling for food, that’s where appetite hormones like ghrelin come into play. A little rumble spurred by that hormone will in fact let us know that it’s time to eat, Raymond says, adding that even the aroma of an enticing party platter can set off some noises, even if our bodies don’t need food.
Although most noises coming from your middle don’t warrant a Google-search of some weird medical malady, there are times when grumbling middles can indicate a problem.
“If you have a lot of noise, along with other symptoms, especially pain or diarrhea, there could be an underlying issue,” says gastroenterologist Dr. Jeffry Katz of University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.
Those problems can include:
food allergies or intolerances
irritable bowel syndrome
Very high-pitched bowel sounds could be a sign of an intestinal blockage
There’s no proven way to reduce the symphony conducted by our intestines.
“That noise means your digestive system is working the way it should and that’s important,” says Katz, professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
But if borborygmi is really annoying you, there are at least four ways to soothe it.
1. Try to limit the amount of extra air you’re swallowing
All that extra air can contribute to loud bellies — and beyond.
So listen to your mother’s advice and don’t stuff your food down your gullet.
2. Chew slowly
And swallow before you take another bit.
3. Avoid sugar-free
If you have a really noisy belly, you might be sensitive to fructose, which is present in some fruity drinks and sodas, as well as foods like onions and artichokes, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Sorbitol, found in apples, prunes and other fruits, and used in sugar-free candies or gums, could also be a trigger for the excessive noise.
“I often tell patients to keep a food diary to see if the noise can be attributed to something they are eating,” Raymond says. “But most of the time, it’s just noise and perfectly normal.”
If you’re hungry.
“Someone is going to know if the noise they are hearing is due to real hunger,” says Katz. “And if they eat, they don’t hear the noise, at least for a little while.”
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