Whose stomach hasn’t piped up unexpectedly, filling a lull in a conversation, or adding a little soundscape to an otherwise quiet moment? An audible stomach growl is often followed by a sheepish “I must be hungry,” or an abashed observation about not having eaten in a while. But quieting the beast within (the stomach) isn’t necessarily a matter of feeding it a snack.

What’s the Deal?

That racket you hear—perhaps best described by its scientific name, the onomatopoeic Greek word borborygmus—is simply the aural evidence that the digestive system is doing what it is supposed to do: mix food, fluids, and gastric juices and push the mixture through the intestinal tract a few inches at a time so that what we eat can be digested and then, um, eliminated. The growling and rumbling we hear—and sometimes feel—is generated by the walls of the gastrointestinal tract as they contract and relax to squeeze everything through the intestines. This muscle contraction is called peristalsis, and it increases in rate and force when food is present and needs to be moved through the intestines, as well as when the stomach has been empty for about two hours (read on to find out why).

In the latter case, the growling feels and sounds stronger because there’s little or nothing in the stomach to absorb and muffle the noise. When we haven’t eaten in a couple of hours, the digestive system releases hormones that let the brain know that it’s time to start peristalsis again in order to move along anything from the last meal that wasn’t completely cleared out, making way for whatever food might be on its way. In other words, peristalsis occurs on an empty stomach because, like any true foodie, the belly is always getting ready for its next meal.

Can Seriously Noisy Be a Serious Problem?

There’s not much to be done for a healthy-but-vocal digestive system. And most of the time, the sounds that come from the bowels of our, well, bowels, are simply a product of a healthy gut’s routine: The noises just indicate movement in the stomach, usually caused by gas which can accumulate for a host of reasons, including simply swallowing air. However, if gurgling, rumbling, and growling are excessively loud or frequent (like, say, every hour), especially when other symptoms of gastrointestinal distress are present—think gas, nausea, a change in bowel movements, or vomiting—they could indicate a GI problem like Irritable Bowel Syndrome.A gastroenterologist (a physician of the digestive system and its disorders) can help investigate.

The Takeaway

Listen to your body, but don’t ignore the brain. Because borborygmi may not be a reliable indicator of when it’s time to grab a snack or tuck into your next meal, getting in touch with one’s own personal hunger cues is a helpful way to make sure we keep our bodies full (but not overly full) of the fuel we need. Understanding how hunger and satiety work and how to avoid feeding the “artificial appetite,” as well as practicing mindful eating are all ways to stay tuned in to what our bodies want and when they want it—no external cues necessary!

Photo: dualdflipflop

What hunger cues do you rely on—physical or otherwise—to let you know when you should grab a snack?