What's Really Happening To Your Body When Your Stomach Growls

Come lunchtime, when you haven't moved from your desk (or couch) for hours since breakfast, you'll suddenly hear a low growling sound. You know it's not your cat getting ready to pounce on a rat, so you think it's your stomach letting you know you have to eat something and not test how long you can go without food. We all think the sounds of our gut growling are a sure sign it's time to eat, but what does it really mean when your body is being noisy? For starters, it doesn't always mean you're hungry.

According to Men's Health, that growling you hear is not your stomach, but rather your intestines doing their job of cleaning your gut. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or what we learned in school as the digestive system, runs from the mouth to the anus and includes the esophagus, stomach, and the small and large intestines. The walls of the GI tract consist of smooth muscle but, when food travels down it, the walls contract to squeeze the food through the system.

Once you eat, your body begins the interdigestive phase, a cycle of your gut's contractions every 90 minutes. This process of squeezing food, gas, and liquid through your body generates a rumbling noise. The ancient Greeks even had a name for these sounds your GI makes: borborygmi (plural: borborygmus). Scientific American said the term is an onomatopoeia and actually translates to rumbling.

Some foods make more growling noises

The GI tract's whole process of pushing food down takes a while, which means your digestive system continually makes rumbling sounds; you just barely hear it most times. The entire tract, particularly the intestines, just want to make sure any small bits of food make it down to where they can be digested. When your stomach is more or less empty, the sound can echo — it's mostly just air in there. Having food or liquid in your stomach muffles the rumbling.

Tufts University explained that some individuals can be more sensitive to hearing rumbling sounds. Some people swallow more air than others when talking or eating, so there's more air hanging out in their stomachs to produce the echoes. Foods that can be difficult to digest intensify the rumbling sounds. The intestines need to absorb nutrients to work well. If you're lactose intolerant, you have a harder time taking in the nutrients, so your intestines also have to work harder to digest and move food down the system. Lactose intolerant people tend to use bacteria to break milk down, creating gas and even more rumbling sounds. 

Other foods also cause more noise in and of themselves. You've heard that beans make you flatulent. (There's a reason why astronauts aren't allowed to eat beans in space.) Beans are difficult foods to absorb and create gas. Fructose, a type of sugar in fruits and artificial sweeteners, can be hard to process, too.

You can mute your stomach

A grumbling stomach may be normal behavior, but it can be socially awkward, especially if someone else hears the rumbling. Don't worry; there are ways to keep your intestines on a low volume.

Healthline suggests drinking water. If you can't get a bite to eat, water will at least fill you up. It also helps improve digestion. Eating and chewing slowly also helps tamps down sound. Not only does eating slowly limit air intake, but it also allows for more food to be digested well. Chewing slowly and thoroughly pulverizes food, so your GI exerts much less effort to push it down and break it up.

Eating more regularly fills you up more often. Dieticians often suggest eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day instead of three big, full meals. Taking in more food throughout the day also helps your digestive system process food much better. Too much food is a lot more difficult to process and can cause more contractions of the GI tract muscles and, therefore, more rumbling. Walking after you eat also helps digestion. For most people, avoiding eating gassy, sugary, or acidic foods prevents too much growling.

The next time you hear your stomach growling, stop, and think if you've eaten recently. It may not mean you're hungry right away, but it does mean your stomach is empty.