Why You Shouldn’t Always Eat Away Your Stomach Growls

The mechanism making your stomach gurgle isn't a hunger cue, but waiting for it to finish its job could help you avoid bloating, gas, and other symptoms.
Why You Shouldn’t Always Eat Away Your Stomach Growls
A mechanism that sweeps debris out of the stomach and small intestine can be restored by giving it more time to finish its job. (Shutterstock)
Amy Denney

A coordinated cleanup that happens in the gut in between meals might have big implications for anyone who struggles with digestive issues.

After eating, a mechanism called the migrating motor complex sends special contractions to rid the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract of debris, such as bacteria and mucus.

These aren’t the same contractions as those used in gastrointestinal peristalsis, which involves waves of muscle action to move and mix food throughout all the digestive organs. The migrating motor complex (MMC) has been described as a sweeping process, much like a street cleaner following behind a parade.

This MMC is a vital—and somewhat time-consuming—part of optimal digestion that can take place only when one is not eating. Its job is keeping microbes and their byproducts in the right place by sweeping away remnant food particles that gut bacteria like to feed on.

Without this mechanism working properly, bacteria can wander out of the colon where they belong and into the small intestine in search of undigested food. They’re not disease-causing bacteria; they’re only doing their job, just in the wrong location. This condition is known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and it leads to gas and bloating, among other symptoms.

Without the MMC mechanism, food matter and bacteria can stagnate in the small intestine, according to “Clinical and Basic Neurogastroenterology and Motility,” a medical book published in 2020.

“It has been found that individuals who suffer disruption or damage to this system are far more likely to develop [SIBO],” the book reads. “The large intestine has different bacteria strains, and a much higher volume of bacteria than the small intestine. The progressive flushing mechanism of the MMC helps to prevent bacteria strains from the colon moving up into the terminal ileum, where they could begin to colonise the small intestine.”

But SIBO isn’t the only GI issue that’s associated with the migrating motor complex. It’s been linked also to gut infections, gastroparesis (a condition that prevents the stomach from emptying properly), and intestinal pseudo-obstruction, according to a review in Nature that detailed its role in disease.

There’s even concern that dietary advice to eat smaller meals but more often could be contributing to inefficient functioning of the MMC; overburdening the gut with too many feeding episodes could be a contributing factor to uncomfortable GI symptoms.

“I know we’ve been told we should be eating six small meals a day, but when you look at it from a motility perspective, that’s not helpful,” naturopath Nicole Peasnell with Kirsten Greene SIBO Clinic told The Epoch Times. “What happens is if we are sitting there grazing all day long on our food, this MMC doesn’t get as much time as we might want for it to run and do that clearing out to run our motility.”

A Detailed Look at the MMC

Gut motility, the transit time for our food from the moment it hits our mouth until it works its way all the way through and out of the body, is the major role of the MMC. The MMC and the nervous and endocrine systems have a complex interplay, only some of which is understood.
It operates on a cycle that has four stages with patterns of electromechanical activity every 90 to 120 minutes. There are virtually no contractions in the first phase, which is the longest. The second phase involves intermittent, irregular contractions.

The most active is the third phase, which has short bursts of regular high-amplitude contractions. They can result in gurgling or rumbling noises often misinterpreted as hunger. Eating will get rid of the noise, but it will interrupt the cycle from the first bite, starting the lengthy process all over again. The fourth phase is a short transition back to the first.

There is no one diagnostic tool for a dysfunctional MMC; tests for associated conditions can help home in on whether it might be playing a role. A study in 2018 suggested that assessing gut sounds could be an adequate biomarker in much the same way auscultation—listening for sounds—is used to assess breathing and heart function.
Published in Sensors, the study involved a personal computer and software program, along with a low-cost acoustic sensing device to detect MMC cycles.

When the MMC Isn’t Working

Researchers also learn clues about the MMC by studying its intimate link with gut hormones, such as motilin, and the nervous system.

The enteric nervous system—sometimes called the second brain—initiates MMC activity. Part of the autonomic nervous system, the enteric nervous system is a web of neurons that communicates using neurotransmitters—chemical messengers. They coordinate activity with muscles, secretory glands, and the vasculature of the GI tract, according to “Clinical and Basic Neurogastroenterology and Motility.”

An absence of MMC phase three contractions for eight hours is considered severe enteric neuromuscular dysfunction. But there’s another component of the nervous system that’s also at play—the vagus nerve, a long nerve that connects the brain to the body’s major organs, including the gut.

Patients who've had vagotomy, removal of part of their vagus nerve, still have MMC impulses in the small intestine, but not the stomach. This shows that two independent parts of the nervous system are at play in this one mechanism.

The gut hormone motilin, which triggers muscle contractions that move food from the small intestine to the large intestine, is also involved. It ebbs and flows with MMC phases. When motilin is administered to a patient, it can induce phase three contractions.

MMC and Illness

The MMC is important not only for aiding in digestion, but also for pushing food through the GI tract, allowing for nutrient absorption and preventing intestinal blockages.
Several disorders are linked to a disturbed MMC, according to a 2021 review in Nature. 

Two of them are intestinal pseudo-obstruction, a painful condition characterized by a buildup of partially digested food in the colon, and gastroparesis, the inability of the stomach to empty properly.

A 2012 study in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility found that patients with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infections were more likely to have a lack of phase three activity, which returned once H. pylori was eradicated.

“It is assumed that this abnormal motility might be a predisposing condition for bacterial colonization of the gastric mucosa rather than its consequence,” the study said.

Fasting and the MMC

One simple way to restore the MMC function is to allow it to do its job, meaning spreading out eating.
“If you put food in your mouth every hour of the daytime, you will never have cleaning waves. So the first recommendation is to eat the same amount as you normally do but that you eat it as distinct meals,” according to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “We previously recommended five hours between meals but this can be difficult for some people. At least four hours is now what we recommend.”
Other tips are to refrain from snacking and eating right before bed. Cassie Madsen, registered dietitian with Gut Health and Nutrition, told The Epoch Times it’s best to eat at regular intervals.

“Our bodies like cycles. When you’re not feeding yourself on a regular cycle, gut function can slow down and stop working,” she said. “Is spacing our meals enough to make a difference? I don’t think we really know at this point.”

Still, it’s common advice—so long as patients aren’t experiencing nutritional deficiencies, which can be common in some with GI issues. Getting sufficient nutrients always takes precedence over meal timing, Ms. Madsen said.

But if patients can keep a four- to five-hour period between at least two meals and extend their nighttime fast as long as possible, that could prove beneficial, she said. Those who’ve had SIBO could prevent recurrence by practicing meal spacing.

Other Possible Rebalancing Tools

Pharmacological prokinetics—agents that promote gut motility—are being explored. You can also find natural prokinetics including probiotics, traditional Chinese and Japanese herbs, ginger, curcumin, and even specialized supplement blends.

Vagus nerve stimulation is a popular social media trend for gut motility, Ms. Madsen said, but there isn't a lot of evidence of its efficacy. Still, she said it doesn’t hurt to try yoga, meditation, regular exercise, and deep breathing practices.

“I do think there’s some value in some of the techniques that are promoted because they also promote overall relaxation and stress reduction, which can have a big impact on gut health as well,” she said.

Amy Denney is a health reporter for The Epoch Times. Amy has a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield and has won several awards for investigative and health reporting. She covers the microbiome, new treatments, and integrative wellness.