Do stomach rumblings mean you’re hungry?

Stomach rumblings can be a cause of embarrassment, especially if they happen in front of a stranger or someone you’re trying to impress. You’ll most likely sheepishly laugh it off as hunger pangs. But do these stomach noises really arise from hunger?

When your stomach makes growling noises, hunger can be a cause, but it is not the only reason. These noises can occur at any time, even after you’d just eaten.

Where do these sounds come from?

Though these rumblings may come from your stomach when it is empty, it can also come from your small intestines. And usually, when your stomach or bowel growls – called borborygmi – it can be soft and sometimes, soundless.

Borborygmi is caused by peristalsis (a series of muscle contractions) which moves contents of the gastrointestinal tract along the small intestines, combined with the presence of liquid and gas. The noises are loudest when you have an empty stomach (which means there is nothing to muffle the sounds), leading to the common association to hunger.

This process happens throughout the day, with your intestines only becoming less noisy at certain points of the day or when you’re fast asleep.

Are they normal?

These sounds, when not accompanied by other symptoms, are usually harmless, with no medical significance. But in some instances, too much or no sound at all is considered abnormal.

When you have hyperactive bowel sounds, they usually arise when you have diarrhea. More peristaltic movements occur, combined with higher net intestinal accumulation of fluids and gas, making the sounds of watery stool going through the gut much louder.

Some malabsorption states are linked to noisier bowel sounds. For instance, lower levels in the small intestines of the enzyme required to digest the milk sugar lactose allows the sugar to arrive at the colon intact, where it is then fermented by colon bacteria. These organisms then produce hydrogen and products that pull fluids into the gut and stimulate its contractions. The presence of the gut movement, gas and fluid then fulfils the criteria for producing abdominal noises.

However, a complete lack of bowel sounds is no laughing matter as it may indicate a serious intra-abdominal problem; if you’re also experiencing severe abdominal pain, a emergency visit to the hospital, and possibly surgery, is in order. After surgery, the intestines generally become quiet, with the return of sounds the first signs of recovery.

Is there any way to reduce these sounds?

No exact treatment for borborygmi is available, as it is not considered a medical condition. These noises can be a consequence of common intestinal disturbances such as irritable bowel syndrome. If you’re having diarrhea or suspect malnutrition or malabsorption, get a doctor’s opinion.

If you are lactose intolerant, or have consumed too much fructose or artificial sweetener sorbitol (which is also a laxative), your diet may help reduce such sounds. These sugars can be found in diet gums and candies and excessive consumption may lead to diarrhea, flatus and louder intestinal sounds, so avoid them as much as possible.

As mentioned earlier, bowel sounds are perfectly normal and part of a natural intestinal process. But if these noises still make you feel embarrassed and are disrupting your social life, consult a doctor.