The infamous stomach gurgle is a bane to many of us. Especially if we are often performing in front of others. Lecturers, radio presenters, TV presenters and teachers dread the moment when their stomach decides to erupt into song at the most inopportune moments. But why do tummies growl and gurgle?
Here’s something for the lexophiles: the technical word for stomach noises is borborygmi. (Borborygmi is the plural; borborygmus the singular). This is an ancient Greek word that means “rumbling” and was coined because it is onomatopoeic.
As to why borborygmi occur, the answer depends partly on when you experience the stomach noises.
Why does my stomach growl when I’m hungry?
When you haven’t eaten for a few hours, your body detects that certain nutrients are running low. In response, the brain causes hormones and chemicals to be released. These find their way to the vicinity of the stomach and intestines, where they make the muscular walls contract. (If you want to get technical, the waves of electrical activity making the stomach muscles contract here, are called “migrating myoelectric complexes”, MMCs, and they stop once you are fed).
As the muscles start sloshing the near-empty contents of your stomach, air pockets form and pop, contributing to the stomach’s song. When there’s no food in the stomach, there’s little matter to absorb and muffle the sound. The effect? Well, it’s quite a similar effect to that of an empty hall echoing loudly.
Why does my stomach growl after I’ve eaten?
It’s all because of gas… (lovely!)
The sounds we hear when our “stomach” starts talking and complaining after a meal is actually made by the movement of gas through our intestines.
Gas is present from air that we swallow, from the air particles between our food (you can really feel it in airy cakes, mousses and Aero bars!) but mostly it’s produced during digestion. Not only does food-breakdown release gases that were stored between the food particles, but also bacteria in our intestines feed on our half-digested food, spitting out gases as a waste product. Bacteria have a particular penchant for half-digested foods rather than fully-digested foods, so the poorer your digestion, the more food is available for bacteria and the more gases they will gleefully spit out into your gut.
With lots of gas in your gut, every time your gut muscles contract to move the liquefied food along towards elimination, the gas pockets pass and pop through this liquid mass as it is pushed through the muscular tubes of your gut, creating gurgling, squeaking and creaking sounds.
If you have a really talkative tummy after eating, chances are that either you have one too many not-so-friendly bacteria in your intestines, or you’re not digesting your food well, meaning that you’re feeding the bacteria more half-digested goodies than you should. There could be many reasons behind not digesting well, ranging from stress and nutrient deficiency, to stomach acid or enzyme deficiencies, to food sensitivities. Sometimes we make more gas because there are particular foods we eat which we find hard to digest. For example, a lot of adults lose their ability to fully digest the milk sugar, lactose, and this can give our bacteria a great meal of undigested sugars, making our stomach more melodic. Other common culprits are foods containing complex sugars which we can’t break down and therefore feed the bacteria: Complex sugars like raffinose, stachyose, fructoligosaccharides, which are found in things like beans, are a feast for gut bacteria. No wonder then that beans make you toot!
Why does my stomach make noises when I’m stressed?
This is what happens to people with IBS although a lot of us can identify with suddenly noticing our stomachs making noises when we are under pressure.
When stressed, our gut responds by making everything move through the gut much faster to be eliminated. This is because the stress response is aimed at allowing us to run away from danger, and one way of helping us do this is by helping us become lighter by “dropping the heavy load” we may be carrying in our gut! (Hence why a lot of people get stress-related diarrhoea before exams or important interviews). Accelerated muscle contractions and movement of food and gas through your gut means louder stomach noises.
Other rare causes of stomach noises …
There are other rarer causes of stomach noises like having an obstructed bowel, food intolerances, celiac disease, hyperthyroidism, and diarrhoea.
Remedies for grumbling tummies
You can reduce the stomach noises by:
- Not waiting too long between meals. Eating small meals and snacks often is a good way to go to prevent inter-meal grumblings. A little snack every 2-3 hours is quite a good precaution against noisy tummies. Be careful not to have big snacks with this frequency though because you don’t want to be eating too much.
- If most of your noises come after eating, ensuring you have all the raw materials you need for good digestion can help reduce the amount of half-digested food you give those gas-producing bacteria. Zinc helps us make stomach acid (a good zinc supplement is taking two 22mg tablets a day of Solgar’s Zinc Picolinate (US)(UK) ), and protein to make your digestive enzymes. A good multivitamin/mineral could be a great way to ensure you have all the nutrients needed to digest your food. (My favourite one is Nature’s Plus: Source Of Life Liquid (US), (UK) 30ml a day). Until you top up your nutrient levels, you could try taking a digestive enzyme (like Nutri’s Similase) to help you digest your food.
- You may have too many nasty bacteria in your gut after taking a course of antibiotics. They are also more likely to accumulate if you’re eating a diet high in sugars and simple carbohydrates, and if you’re under a lot of stress. If you suspect you may have an overload of nasty bacteria, a probiotic can help you rebalance your gut by topping you up with friendly bacteria which will hopefully displace the less friendly ones. There are lots of probiotics on the market, but my favourites are Solgar – Advanced Multi-Billion Dophilus (US) (UK) and Udo’s Choice Super 8 Probiotic (US) (UK). A lot of my colleagues consider VSL 3 High Potency Probiotic Capsules to be the best probiotic out there, although it is quite expensive.
If stress is a cause, this must be addressed (Bach Flower remedies may assist here), and sugary foods must also be reduced (preferably eliminated).
- If you know you’re sensitive to certain foods, like milk or beans, then you could avoid them. There are a few tricks and tips which can allow you to make these easier to digest. For example, you can get a lactase enzyme supplement which helps you digest milk (like Lactaid Fast Act Lactase Enzyme Supplement or Fast Acting Lactase – Lactase Enzyme) (UK alternative).
With beans, you can soak and rinse them really well and boil them with a piece of kombu seaweed to help get rid of some of the gas-causing effects.
- Find as many ways as possible to have relaxation in your life to avoid the nervous tummy effects. With supplements, magnesium is “nature’s tranquilliser” and can help quieten muscle contractions. The effects of magnesium supplementation could take a few weeks to kick in. I quite like Floradix liquid Magnesium (US) (taking 2 doses of 20ml a day) or Solgar’s Magnesium Citrate tablets (US) (taking three 200mg tablets a day) (UK)
- Some sources suggest that a teaspoon of olive oil or fish oil (eg Eskimo-3 (US) (UK)) will reduce the strength of the muscle contractions.
- For the best effects I recommend working on improving your digestive health with a personalized treatment by a good nutritionist.
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