We’ve all had the familiar feeling of rumbling in our belly when we’re hungry. It’s a clear sign from our stomach to our brain saying: Time for some grub!
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This discomfort that you feel close to lunchtime is called hunger pangs. And they’re usually accompanied by a grumbling coming from your stomach — which may have some heads turning if you’re in a quiet room.
Why do these pangs actually happen? And can they be a sign of something else besides hunger?
Gastroenterologist Christine Lee, MD, explains why our stomach growls and gnaws at us when we’re hungry, as well as what else our stomachs may be telling us.
What are hunger pangs?
The first thing you should know about hunger pangs is that they’re usually a completely natural reaction. In most cases, they’re an important part of your body’s messaging system that tells you when you’re hungry.
Hunger pangs — sometimes called “hunger pains” — are a sensation of discomfort or gnawing in your stomach or abdomen. They’re caused by contractions in the muscles of your stomach and intestines due to the release of the hormone ghrelin — the hunger hormone — when your stomach is empty.
Hunger pangs usually feel like:
- A feeling of gnawing and rumbling in your stomach.
- Abdominal pain.
- A feeling of emptiness in your stomach.
- Painful contractions in the stomach area.
Hunger pangs vs. stomach rumbling
You may be wondering if hunger pangs are the same thing as your stomach grumbling. Let’s break it down.
Both sensations relate to our stomachs, but they’re not one and the same.
Hunger pangs can occur when your stomach is empty and your body wants food. It’s likely a sensation you’ll feel in your stomach or abdomen area and the gnawing can literally feel like your belly is empty.
Stomach rumbling, on the other hand, is the noise produced by the movement of gas and fluids in your digestive system. It’s caused by the contraction of the muscles in your stomach and intestines as they mix and propel food and liquid through your digestive tract. Stomach rumbling can occur at any time and it can be caused by a variety of factors, such as swallowing air, drinking carbonated beverages or having an empty stomach.
“The noises can come and go,” explains Dr. Lee. “It’s similar to hearing water sounds when trickling down the gutters along the side of the house. Those noises sometimes get amplified depending on the amount of food, liquid and gas that’s traveling through your intestines.”
If the source of your grumbling is due to hunger, in that scenario, there’s nothing you can really do — if you’re in a quiet boardroom in a big meeting and you feel that rumbling in your stomach, there’s no way to stop the sounds. The best remedy is prevention: Plan ahead and eat at least one to two hours prior to going into that boardroom.
“If, however, the noise is coming from the lower part of the abdomen, it may be the food is now passing through the small and large intestines and making that noise,” notes Dr. Lee.
Causes of hunger pangs
If you’re feeling hunger pangs, take a moment to identify which part of your abdomen the feeling is coming from.
“If it’s the upper abdomen, then it’s more likely your stomach,” states Dr. Lee. “If the pain and the noise are coming from the lower abdomen, that’s more likely your colon.”
Some of the possible causes of hunger pangs include:
The first possible cause is in the name: You’re feeling hunger pangs because you’re hungry. Did you forget your lunch at home? Did you skip breakfast on your way out the door? Bingo.
If your hunger pangs and stomach grumbling is coming from your upper abdominal area, it’s generally more likely associated with hunger. “It means your stomach is empty and it’s growling for more food,” explains Dr. Lee.
Specific reasons why you may be experiencing hunger-related pangs:
- You’re not eating at the same time you usually do.
- You’re eating significantly less than usual.
- You’re skipping meals.
- Your last meal didn’t fill you up as much as you thought it would.
- Your physical activity has increased, and your body has burned up more calories and thus needs more food (energy).
The best thing to do when you’re feeling these pangs and any loud rumblings is to give your body what it needs: A nice balanced meal and regular exercise.
“If it’s not associated with any other symptoms like pain, fever, changes in bowel habits (constipation to diarrhea or vice versa), bleeding, unexplainable weight loss, anemia, etc., then generally, it’s more likely to be a benign cause,” says Dr. Lee.
But if it is new to you, have it checked out. There’s the old saying, “When in doubt, check it out.” You can never go wrong seeking a medical opinion to be sure.
Quality of food
So, you felt the hunger pangs, and you started to eat more — but they’re still hitting you even after you swear you’ve eaten enough. The next possible reason behind hunger pangs is less about the amount of food, and more the quality of food you’re ingesting. And sometimes, you may not even notice that your favorite foods aren’t giving you the nutritional value you need.
For example, a diet consisting of mostly processed foods may not be nourishing your stomach as well as you think. This is because consuming these kinds of foods can cause your blood sugar levels to spike and then drop quickly — which can in turn trigger those hunger pangs.
As we all know, food isn’t the only thing our body craves. Not drinking enough water can also cause your body to send a message, “Water, please!” through hunger pangs! Maybe these should be called thirst pangs?
Dehydration can cause hunger pangs because your body may mistake thirst for hunger — again, it goes back to your stomach feeling empty and sending a signal to let you know. Drink plenty of water throughout the day to help stay hydrated and reduce hunger pangs.
Gastrointestinal and digestive issues
If your stomach is still alerting you that you’re hungry, but you’ve tried eating more — and higher-quality — food, then your gut may be sending you a different message. In some cases, hunger pangs may be due to a digestive reaction or a specific condition.
Dr. Lee says that if you’re having consistent discomfort and gurgling from your lower abdomen, it could be a sign of other conditions like lactose intolerance, celiac sprue, constipation or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It’s best to talk to your healthcare provider about these concerns to determine the cause.
Certain medications may also cause your stomach to have hunger pangs. Some prescription medications are known to cause occasional stomach pain or upset, so be sure to ask your healthcare provider what symptoms you can expect if you’re taking a new medication.
In addition, if you take medication to manage pain like NSAIDs, they can — in some extreme cases — cause gastritis or peptic ulcer disorders, so it’s important to read the label carefully and keep track of how much you’re taking.
Anxiety or stress
You may have heard about how nerves can cause an upset stomach or unpredictable bowel movements, but hunger pangs can also be triggered by stress.
“Stress can affect everyone very differently,” recognizes Dr. Lee. “Stress can make some people’s intestines go into spasms.” These spasms can often cause diarrhea and stomach grumbling, as well as pain and cramping. Stress can also lead to constipation and build-up of gas, which can cause a rumbling in your stomach and, in some cases, pain similar to hunger pangs.
How to alleviate hunger pangs
Hunger pangs can vary from person to person, depending on your diet, weight and lifestyle. And they may not always be purely physically related. Issues like emotional eating and other psychological factors can also play a part. So, if you feel like there’s a psychological aspect to your hunger pangs, be sure to see a therapist or healthcare provider.
If you’re experiencing persistent hunger pangs and you feel that it’s a diet or food-related issue, try taking these steps to alleviate them:
- Practice slow, mindful eating. If you’re noticing consistent hunger pangs and you find that it’s related to poor diet or unbalanced meals, you may want to try some more intuitive eating techniques or speak to a dietitian about ways to improve your eating routine.
Dr. Lee adds that it’s important to not rush through meals. “Chew thoroughly and swallow slowly,” she recommends. “Rushing can lead to aerophagia (swallowing air) and can cause abdominal bloating.”
- Eat at similar times each day. Our bodies like stability and routine, especially with our food intake. If you’ve noticed more hunger pangs than usual, it may help to make sure you’re eating regularly throughout the day. In most cases, hunger can set in as soon as two hours after your last meal, so if you can’t shake your hunger, making sure you have a meal at consistent times is a good place to start.
- Eat enough protein. Even if you’re eating at regular intervals, there’s a chance you may not be getting enough protein — thus, your hunger pangs begin panging. It’s generally recommended to increase the proteins and decrease simple carbohydrates in your diet.
- Stay active. Ever feel like the food in your stomach feels like it’s just sitting there after you’re full? Turns out, it’s important to keep your body active to keep your digestive tract moving. “When you stay active, your intestine stays stronger and less sluggish,” Dr. Lee explains. “Anything to avoid long periods of a stagnant state (like long car or plane rides) or a sedentary lifestyle where things accumulate and build up.”
If you’re still feeling consistent or more intense hunger pangs after trying the above lifestyle changes, you’ll want to mention these symptoms to a healthcare provider so they can look into any other issues or medical conditions that may be playing a part.
Managing hunger pangs when dieting
In some cases, you may already know why you’re having hunger pangs — because you’ve changed your meal routine through a new diet or fasting period. So, how do you manage hunger pangs (and stay healthy overall), while adjusting your diet?
Again, one way is to make sure you’re eating enough protein. And the good news? There’s an array of different protein-based diets out there that can help with weight loss, while still making sure you get the right amount of nutrients.
Plus, you don’t only have to get your protein from meat products — you can get your daily intake from foods like tofu, yogurt, salmon, eggs, legumes and more. At the same time, Dr. Lee advises that any kind of diet should be approached with care. “Everything in moderation is the key,” she says.
“Make sure you’re accommodating for any new diets by taking things like prune juice, oatmeal, bran or some sort of over-the-counter-laxatives to help keep things moving, especially in the large intestines,” she adds.
Another recommended tip is to make sure to not skip breakfast — this is often when your body is most hungry, so it’s common for hunger pangs to be triggered first thing in the morning. Along with that, remember to stay hydrated and keep a consistent sleep schedule so you’re avoiding any hunger pang triggers.
You may also experience annoying hunger pangs if you’re going through a fast, whether for health-related or religious reasons. It’s important to make sure you’re easing into the fasting process and doing it safely.
When to visit a doctor
If you’ve been dealing with hunger pangs and stomach grumbling, but it’s not going away after having balanced meals, this may be a sign that something is up. Generally, if your stomach is growling or gnawing for food, it should go away after eating or slightly improving your diet.
You should see a healthcare provider if your hunger pangs and stomach grumbling are also paired with symptoms like:
- Shortness of breath.
- Constipation or diarrhea.
- Blood in stool.
- Difficulties sleeping.
- Rapid fluctuations in weight.
Hunger pangs are usually a normal bodily occurrence that are directing you toward the fridge. But hunger pangs may also be nudging you toward a better or more consistent diet. If you’re feeling them get more persistent, talk to a dietitian to get a better idea of how to improve your meal routine.
And don’t ignore any other accompanying symptoms that don’t feel right. Listen to your gut and talk with a healthcare provider.