It happens to the best of us…at the worst of times. You’re at the movies, in a meeting, at a job interview, when: Grrrrrrrrrrr…
No matter how loudly you cough or try to laugh it off, when your stomach growls, it’s embarrassing. And distracting. But have you every wondered why our tummies rumble? Is it really because we’re hungry or is it something else?
Well, good news, fellow grumblers: Hunger is part of the reason but not the main one. Turns out quieting the beast within isn’t necessarily a matter of feeding it a snack.
“Stomach growling is the noise produced as a result of food, fluid and air being churned in the small bowel,” explains Dr. Richard A. Desi, a specialist in internal medicine and gastroenterology at The Melissa L. Posner Institute for Digestive Health & Liver Disease at Mercy in Baltimore, Maryland. “When the bowel contracts during motility, the lumen contents [a.k.a. the inside space of a tubular structure, such as an artery or intestine] can be swished around, causing the noise.”
Desi concedes that it does “tend to occur when we are hungry,” but that’s because “motility increases as that time.”
So, that ruckus that we and everyone in earshot hears is generated by the walls of the gastrointestinal tract as they contract and relax to squeeze everything through the intestines. Those muscle contractions increase in rate and force when food is present and needs to be moved through the intestines, in other words, after you’ve eaten. But it also happens when the stomach has been empty for a couple hours; it only seems stronger because there’s little or nothing in the stomach to absorb and muffle the noise. Cue the embarrassing sounds.
“Also, anything that produces gas or excess fluid may lead to a noisier gut,” adds Desi. “For example, excessive air-swallowing during eating and lactose intolerance can exacerbate the symptoms.”
Desi does admit that intestinal malabsorption due to intestinal bacterial overgrowth or celiac disease can also cause these symptoms, but it’s rare. And there are usually other symptoms associated with this, such as diarrhea, nausea or vomiting.
So, if your stomach’s trying to chat with the guy next to you on the train into work, you can chalk it up to a healthy-but-vocal digestive system. Listen to your body but also trust your instincts; you don’t always need to rush to grab something from the vending machine, but if the occasion calls for it, you can always blame it on your overactive tummy.