Bowel sounds, or stomach growling, refers to noises made within the small and large intestines, typically during digestion.

Because the intestines are hollow chambers, sounds that emanate from them during digestion is often similar to the sounds of water moving through pipes.

Bowel (or abdominal) sounds are most often a normal occurrence. However, frequent, unusually loud sounds or the lack of abdominal sounds may indicate an underlying condition within the digestive system.

Most likely, when your stomach is “growling,” it’s related to the movement of food, liquids, digestive juices, and air through your intestines.

One of the most common reasons for stomach growling is hunger.

According to an article published by the Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America, when you’re hungry, hormone-like substances in the brain activate the desire to eat, which then sends signals to the intestines and stomach. As a result, the muscles in your digestive system contract and cause these sounds.

After you eat, your abdomen may grumble or growl as your intestines process the food. The walls of the gastrointestinal tract are mostly made up of muscle. The walls contract to mix and squeeze the food through your intestines so it can be digested.

This process is called peristalsis. Peristalsis is generally responsible for the rumbling sound you hear after eating. It can occur several hours after eating and even at night when you’re trying to sleep.

Abdominal sounds may either be classified as normal, hypoactive, or hyperactive.

Hypoactive, or reduced, bowel sounds often indicate that intestinal activity has slowed down. On the other hand, hyperactive bowel sounds are louder sounds related to increased intestinal activity. These can occur after eating or when you have diarrhea.

While occasional hypoactive and hyperactive bowel sounds are normal, frequent experiences on either end of the spectrum and the presence of other abnormal symptoms may indicate a medical problem.

Abdominal sounds alone are not usually a cause for concern. However, the presence of other symptoms that accompany the sounds may indicate an underlying health issue. These symptoms may include:

It’s important to know that while hypoactive and hyperactive abdominal sounds don’t always mean there’s a bigger issue at hand, they could also be indicative of bowel and digestive issues. For instance:

  • paralytic ileus, which is is a problem with the nerves connected to the intestines
  • blocked blood vessels that are preventing the intestines from getting proper blood flow
  • bowel obstruction, which can be caused by a hernia, tumor, adhesions, or other conditions

Additional causes of hypoactive (reduced) bowel sounds can include:

  • drugs that can slow your digestion and elimination (like codeine)
  • coming off of general anesthesia
  • radiation to the abdomen
  • spinal anesthesia (like an epidural)
  • abdominal surgery

Additional causes of hyperactive (increased) bowel sounds can include:

  • Crohn’s disease
  • food allergies
  • diarrhea
  • gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding
  • infectious enteritis
  • ulcerative colitis

If your stomach growls occasionally around lunchtime or after a big meal, it’s a good sign that your digestive system is working as it should!

It’s only if there seems to be a big change around the volume and occurrence, or there are some troubling co-occurring issues, that you may want to consider a visit with your doctor.

Normal stomach growling doesn’t require any treatment. If the sounds are accompanied by a bloated, gassy feeling in your stomach, you may want to limit your intake of foods that can produce more gas. These include:

  • certain fruits (like apples, peaches, and raisins)
  • certain vegetables (like broocoli, artichokes, and cabbage)
  • beans
  • artificial sweeteners (like sorbitol)
  • carbonated drinks
  • whole-grain and bran products

Avoid dairy if you have lactose intolerance.

Swallowing air by eating too quickly, drinking through a straw, or chewing gum can also lead to excess air in your digestive tract.

If your stomach noises are causing you a bit of stress, a good thing to keep in mind is that most of these sounds can only be heard by you! Most other people are unaware of them or unconcerned (and definitely experience them as well).

If abnormal abdominal sounds occur with other symptoms, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor.

After your doctor talks to you about your family medical history and asks a few questions about the frequency and severity of your symptoms, they will most likely use a stethoscope to listen for any abnormal bowel sounds. This step is called auscultation.

To get to the bottom of your health issue, your doctor will most likely perform some additional tests:

  • A CT scan is used to take X-ray images of the abdominal area.
  • An endoscopy is a test that uses a camera attached to a small, flexible tube to capture pictures within the stomach or intestines.
  • Blood tests are used to rule out infection, inflammation, or organ damage.

Bowel obstructions typically produce very loud, high-pitched sounds that can often be heard without using a stethoscope. They may also co-occur with pain in the stomach, bloating, and a lack of bowel movement.

Medications are available for certain gastrointestinal illnesses like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. If you’re diagnosed with one of these conditions, your doctor may prescribe medication for you.

Abdominal sounds and medical emergencies

If you have signs of a medical emergency, such as bleeding, bowel damage, or severe obstruction, you’ll need to be admitted to the hospital for treatment.

For some people, receiving fluids by vein and allowing the intestinal system to rest will be enough to treat the problem. Other people may need surgery.

For example, if you have a serious infection or injury to your intestines or if the intestines are found to be completely blocked, you may need surgery to correct the problem and treat any damage.

More often than not, sounds in your digestive system (stomach growling) are normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

In rare cases, certain complications can be life-threatening if left untreated. Intestinal obstructions, in particular, can be dangerous.

This is why listening to your body — how it feels, how it sounds — is the best way to keep yourself safe and healthy. If something feels off, talking with your doctor can’t hurt and could really help.