If you’re constantly feeling the stomach gurgles, it might mean it’s time to see a doc. Here’s how to determine next steps.
You probably know that sensation of your stomach gurgling—the uncomfortable and concerning feeling like a volcano could erupt inside at any time. If you experience it infrequently, you can likely pinpoint what’s going on, whether you ate your food too fast, had something that didn’t agree with you, or it’s actually more of a rumble (oh wait, yep, you skipped breakfast…) But if stomach gurgling becomes a recurring symptom, it could signal a more serious problem.
When stomach gurgling signals another problem
First off, think about the last time you ate. If it’s been several hours, and your only symptom is the gurgling (technically known as borborygmi), then it’s likely nothing serious, says Michelle Zook, MD, an internal medicine physician with Parsley Health. However, if you have pain, diarrhea, constipation, excess gas or foul-smelling stool, then it’s time you pay extra attention. If these added symptoms stick around or get worse, you’ll want to get checked out by a doctor.
Keep in mind, you may be able to let symptoms like noises and gas go on for a week or two to see if they go away. But if you have more severe symptoms, like diarrhea, blood in the stool, or severe pain, aim to see a doctor within 24 to 48 hours.
How to get to the right diagnosis for stomach gurgling
When you go to your doctor with gastrointestinal symptoms, like borborygmi, Dr. Zook says it’s important they take a look at your health history. She says to prepare to answer a few questions about your symptoms:
- How long have your symptoms been present?
- Do you experience them every day or just here and there?
- Do they seem to get triggered by anything in particular?
- Do you notice the stomach gurgling at a certain time of day?
- Have there been changes in your stool consistency, odor, or color?
- How often do you have bowel movements?
- Is there blood in your stool or on your toilet paper? Or is your stool black or tarry?
- Do you experience pain or cramping?
- Have you been exposed to anyone who’s been ill recently?
- Have you eaten any food that’s tasted bad, spoiled, or just not quite right?
- Have you traveled out of the country prior to your symptoms starting?
- Do you have pets or work with animals?
- Have you done anything that makes your symptoms worse or better?
After you tackle those questions, the doctor may want to listen to your bowel sounds, tuning into the amount of air or gas stored there, Dr. Zook says. The doctor may also press on different areas of the belly to assess tenderness, organ enlargement, or lumps or bumps that shouldn’t be there. For patients seeing doctors via virtual visits, like at Parsley Health, Dr. Zook says if their symptoms are fairly mild and not overly concerning, she might ask them to press on certain areas of their own belly while showing her through the video camera (if comfortable with this) and reporting any areas that are tender.
Depending on how the above goes, Dr. Zook says basic labs might be in order to assess for lactose intolerance, or the doctor might opt for stool tests or X-rays. “In the functional medicine world, we often see patients after they have had this evaluation by a conventional doctor and we may turn to more specialized testing,” Dr. Zook says. This might include testing stool for parasites, yeast, bacteria, malabsorption, poor digestion, and gut dysbiosis, which is an imbalance of the bacteria that make up the microbiome. Or, it may include a breath test that looks for small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (aka SIBO). Unfortunately, most conventional doctors don’t test for these things, so many people needlessly suffer from digestive symptoms like stomach gurgling that go unresolved.
The conditions that cause stomach gurgling
As mentioned before, hunger is the most common cause of stomach gurgling, so learning to better read and respond to your own hunger cues can help if that’s the cause. Another frequent cause is not reaching “rest and digest” mode (aka the parasympathetic state) prior to and while eating, Dr. Zook says. “Many of us are rushed and often multi-tasking through our meals,” she says, which can lead to poor digestion. Focus on taking a few deep breaths before you eat to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and see if it helps.
But if those get ruled out, the sounds and sensations of borborygmi might come from a few other, more serious conditions, including:
- Infections, like bacteria, yeast, or parasites
- Small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO)
- Food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance
- Celiac disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis
- Medication side effects
- Less common conditions like Tropical Sprue (a malabsorption disease) and Whipple’s Disease (a bacterial infection that affects the joints and digestive system)
- Congenital disorders, like Hirschsprung Disease, an absence of nerve cells in a segment of the bowel
In any of these conditions, stomach gurgling occurs when three things happen in the body at the same time, Dr. Zook explains: a muscle contraction of the intestinal wall, presence of liquid in the intestines, and presence of gas in the intestines. Depending on your health condition, you’ll experience different degrees of the contraction, gas, or liquid, which can then lead to variations in the volume and frequency of gurgling your gut produces.
How to stop stomach gurgling
Of course, your condition will determine the exact treatment for your stomach gurgling. “That’s why a thorough evaluation is so important,” Dr. Zook says.
For the more minor causes, like hunger, poor digestion, absorption, and food intolerances, Dr. Zook suggests starting with a small, healthy meal or snack to curb the sensation. Also, try avoiding foods that might trigger borborygmi, like dairy or beans, for example. Cooked veggies, including carrots, zucchini, green beans, and spinach, might be better options than raw veggies, while herbal teas and bone broth will support healthy digestion more than coffee. Also, sip water slowly throughout the day, instead of chugging it here and there, and try to keep meals about four hours apart. Limiting sugar, alcohol, and acidic foods like citrus may also help. To reach that “rest and digest” state, take four to five deep belly breaths right before your meal and aim to eat more mindfully by chewing your food slowly, avoiding distractions, and perhaps even playing soft, relaxing music.
These tactics may also be helpful for avoiding stomach gurgling and other digestive symptoms while you work with a doctor to uncover the root cause and find a treatment plan. It can be easy to just write off a symptom like stomach gurgling, but remember that if you’re feeling off, a holistic approach to your health can often help resolve persistent symptoms.