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From time to time nearly everyone experiences borborygmus (bor-bo-ryg-mus, plural borborygmi), also known as stomach rumbles. Borborygmi are the sometimes all too loud gurgling, growling, or rumbling noises produced by the digestive tract as food passes through.

Borborygmi aren't a bad thing. Doctors and nurses listen for them to make sure your digestive tract is active. A complete absence of these sounds suggests ileus or bowel obstruction or some equally serious condition. Their presence confirms that those problems do not exist.

Although borborygmi are often described as stomach rumbles, they actually are due to the movement of food or fluid in the intestines, near the stomach, not actually in the stomach. A similar sound is made by the lungs in cases of hiatal hernia, but this sound has a very clearly different site of origin.

What causes borborygmi?

  • The best known source of "stomach" rumbles is hunger. About two hours after the stomach has emptied after you have eaten a meal (which is three or four hours after the meal itself), the stomach sends a signal to the brain to start a migrating motor complex. These are a series of muscle movements that remove any digested food that was left in the stomach and that prepare the small intestine to receive the next digested meal from the stomach. These contractions ensure that bones, fiber, and foreign objects are passed along from the small intestine to the colon, from which they can be removed with bowel movement. You will get these "stomach rumbles" every 90 to 120 minutes when you are not eating.
  • Incomplete digestion of food can lead to rumbling noises. This is common in people who lack the lactase enzyme for digesting the lactose sugar in dairy products, or who have celiac disease, in which the lining of the intestines rejects the gliadin protein found in the gluten in wheat and similar grains. 
  • Sometimes rumbling noises occur when you can't digest all of the components of your food but the bacteria in your large intestine can. This is common with high-fiber plant foods such as beans, dried fruit, and other fruits and vegetables. Gases are released as the bacteria make a meal of your "roughage."
  • Other times the rumbling in your lower digestive tract is due to swallowed air. This can be air you swallowed while talking, singing, eating, or drinking fizzy carbonated beverages. This air has a way of making a second set of sounds when it is expelled as flatulence.

More often than not, "stomach" rumbles are a healthy sign. There are a few disease conditions that also produce them:

  • Colitis is a condition of inflammation in the colon, the large intestine. It can be due to a lack of circulation, either due to atherosclerosis (most commonly in the elderly) or dehydration (most commonly in long-distance or endurance athletes) or both (most commonly in people who have atherosclerosis who over-do when exercising and get dehydrated). If you have colitis, tummy rumbles are a good sign, in that they don't occur if your bowel is entirely dead from lack of circulation.
  • Celiac disease is a life-long condition caused by an immune reaction to proteins in wheat and other grains (although not rice or corn). Stomach rumbles would be the least of the problems caused by this disease, which results in severe bowel pain, diarrhea, and malnutrition as nutrients failed to be absorbed.
  • Diverticulitis, the accumulation of food in the tiny pouches lining the large intestine known as diverticuli, causes stomach rumbling. It also causes a variety of inflammatory symptoms, bloating, nausea, and fever.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome is a condition of diarrhea after meals, or constipation alternating with diarrhea after meals, that can cause severe abdominal pain. It tends to produce a "dog howling at the moon" kind of borborygmus as one of its lesser symptoms.
  • Diabetics who get constipation tend to have borborygmi because of the sluggishness of their digestive tracts.

If stomach rumbles are your only symptom, however, you probably just need to eat something. As soon as you do, they will go away.

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