You’re not famished, but it happens anyway—that ferocious stomach growl that fills up the silence in a work meeting. Or on a date, or during a job interview, or pretty much anytime it’s super inconvenient for your belly to sound like it’s hosting a tiny whale looking to mate.
At least that stomach growl has a fun name. Formally known as borborygmi, stomach rumbling is a normal physiologic process, according to Anish Sheth, M.D., chief of gastroenterology with University Medical Center of Princeton.
“When we haven’t eaten in awhile, our intestines activate a ‘housekeeper’ function that sweeps away leftover debris,” he says.
This rapid, sweeping motion of the intestines is known as the migrating motor complex (MMC), and it’s your body’s way of preparing your intestines for your next meal. The way MMC works is by pushing air and liquid downstream.
So, essentially, it’s kind of like your body flushing a toilet. It’s a handy cleaning mechanism—but, like that toilet, it’s not going to be quiet.
Although we’ve come to associate the sound with being hungry, that’s not always the case, says Dr. Sheth. Instead, you may find that it happens most in that awkward, meeting-filled time between meals like late afternoon—you know, a little while after you ate, but not long enough for when you to be starving again.
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix, he suggests: Simply have a quick snack. Even eating just a few bites of food will stop the internal housekeeper from working, Dr. Sheth says. Water or other liquid can work, but not as quickly as food.
What doesn’t work so well? Sucking in your gut or holding your breath, which is often your instinct when trying to muffle that sound. In fact, that might make the situation worse, since you’d be forcing more air downward.
A better solution if you’re a chronic stomach growler is to have a few small snacks on hand, especially a couple hours before your next meal.
Also, although borborygmi on its own is harmless, pay attention to whether there are digestive changes that go with it, Dr. Sheth advises. For example, if it comes paired with heartburn, nausea, excessive gas, constipation, or diarrhea and those changes occur for more than a couple weeks, get it checked out.
By Elizabeth Millard