Stomach churning is an uncomfortable, agitated sensation caused by a variety of stomach and intestinal issues. These can range from indigestion to viruses. If you often experience stomach churning, you may have a medical condition that requires treatment.
What causes stomach churning?
Many conditions can cause your stomach to feel like it’s churning. The feeling results from your stomach or intestines contracting more than normal. While it’s usually temporary, it can sometimes go on for hours or even days.
Your stomach can churn for prolonged periods of time due to conditions such as:
- morning sickness in the first trimester of pregnancy
- anxiety disorders
- motion sickness
- strenuous abdominal exercises
- prolonged hunger that can come from dieting and fasting
- certain medications like antibiotics, NSAIDs, or laxatives
Your churning stomach may be caused by a more serious condition if it’s accompanied by:
These conditions, which can result in prolonged (and sometimes severe) symptoms, include:
Gastroenteritis is often referred to as “the stomach flu” or a “stomach bug,” but it’s actually not a flu virus.
Viruses like rotavirus, norovirus, and similar contagious pathogens cause stomach churning, accompanied by severe vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms of rotavirus, which are generally more severe in children than adults, include:
Rotavirus symptoms can last for up to 10 days.
A person who catches norovirus, which lasts from 24–72 hours, might experience:
- abdominal cramping or pain
- generalized body aches
- watery stools or diarrhea
- low-grade fever
Viruses that cause gastroenteritis can lead to dehydration because the illness lasts for a while, and symptoms can become very severe.
Food poisoning may occur when you’ve eaten food that is contaminated or spoiled. This can result in stomach churning. Bacteria, parasites, and viruses are the most frequent culprits of foodborne illness.
Symptoms of food poisoning include:
- abdominal cramps
- loss of appetite
- low fever
Food poisoning generally lasts anywhere from an hour or two to several days. In rare cases, it lasts up to 28 days.
Celiac disease, lactose intolerance, and other allergies
Food allergies, intolerances, and associated autoimmune conditions (like celiac disease) can cause a churning sensation in the stomach or intestinal tract as a direct result of eating foods the body can’t tolerate.
Many food intolerances, like lactose intolerance, cause symptoms like:
- stomach cramps
If you’re lactose intolerant, you’ll notice a pattern of having these symptoms after eating dairy products or drinking milk.
In the case of celiac disease, the symptoms aren’t always so straightforward. Only one-third of adults with celiac disease experience gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea. People with celiac disease can also exhibit the following symptoms:
- stiffness and pain in joints and bones
- iron deficiency anemia
- skin disorders
- tingling and numbness in hands and feet
- tooth discoloration or loss of enamel
- irregular menstrual cycles
- infertility and miscarriage
- pale sores inside the mouth
- weak, brittle bones
While people with celiac disease may not experience diarrhea, it’s still possible they might have a churning sensation in their stomach after ingesting gluten.
Short-term and ongoing stress can trigger many symptoms and health conditions in the body. This includes stomach pain and upset, which can cause you to feel like your stomach is churning. Other effects of stress on your digestive system include:
- acid reflux
- increased risk of ulcers
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a condition with a varying combination of gastrointestinal symptoms that can be caused by irregular (spastic or slow) movements of the colon. A person with IBS may experience:
- alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea
- stomach cramps
Even though IBS is chronic, or long term, symptoms can come and go. Churning in the stomach could accompany the symptoms when they flare up.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
PMS varies in intensity from one woman to the next. Some women may experience gastrointestinal symptoms each month, which may include the sensation of churning in the stomach. Other stomach and intestinal symptoms experienced during PMS include:
- stomach pain
An intestinal obstruction is a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when a blockage forms in either your small or large intestine. Undetected, it can lead to intestinal rupture, which is a medical emergency that requires hospitalization and immediate treatment.
A person with an intestinal obstruction may experience:
- abdominal swelling
- severe bloating
- vomiting, in particular bile-colored
- abdominal pain
- decreased appetite
- severe abdominal cramps
- inability to pass gas or stool
The inability to pass stool or gas as a result of the obstruction could cause churning in the stomach.
How is stomach churning treated?
There are many ways to treat your symptoms, both at home and under your doctor’s care. It all comes down to what’s causing the problem.
In most short-term cases of stomach churning, you can take the following steps to alleviate your symptoms:
- Avoid foods and medications that trigger your symptoms.
- Reduce your portions.
- Try to control stress and anxiety levels.
- Reduce or eliminate alcohol and caffeine.
- Avoid fatty, fried, greasy, or spicy foods.
- Take antacids to soothe heartburn.
- Drink ginger or peppermint tea to alleviate nausea.
- Take probiotics to repopulate the “good” bacteria in your intestinal tract.
For food intolerances or allergies, eliminate the offending foods from your diet — like gluten in the case of celiac disease or dairy if you’re lactose intolerant.
Here are a few tips for dealing with stomach churning resulting from food poisoning or gastroenteritis from a virus:
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Eat bland foods like saltine crackers and white toast.
- Take Pedialyte to replace your electrolytes.
- Eat bland, broth-based soups.
- Avoid hard-to-digest foods.
- Get plenty of rest.
For severe conditions like intestinal blockage, you’ll be treated under a doctor’s close supervision, and may need to be hospitalized.
What is the outlook for stomach churning?
Most of the conditions that cause short-term churning in the stomach will pass within a few hours to a few days, especially with home treatment.
However, if you experience prolonged stomach churning along with other stomach or intestinal disturbances that last longer than two or three weeks, see your doctor to determine the root cause.
The following symptoms could signal a medical emergency:
- high fever
- inability to hold down liquids
- changes in vision
- severe diarrhea that lasts more than three days
- blood in your stool
- prolonged, severe abdominal cramping
- inability to pass gas or have a bowel movement
- severe abdominal bloating
- severe constipation accompanied by loss of appetite
Contact your doctor immediately or visit an emergency room if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.