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Medical News Today: What can cause stomach churning?

Stomach churning is an uncomfortable sensation in the abdomen that may occur alongside nausea and other digestive symptoms. Although stomach churning is often only temporary, it can sometimes be a sign of an underlying condition.

In this article, we describe 11 possible causes of stomach churning. We also explain when to see a doctor and provide some tips for treating and preventing stomach churning.

1. Indigestion

Stomach churning is often only temporary.

Indigestion, or dyspepsia, refers to pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen.

Other symptoms of indigestion can include:

  • a burning sensation in the upper abdomen
  • becoming full too soon or feeling uncomfortable while eating
  • bloating
  • a churning or gurgling stomach
  • belching or gas
  • nausea
  • vomiting

There is not always an obvious reason for indigestion, but some common causes include:

  • eating or drinking too much or too quickly
  • eating spicy, greasy, or acidic foods
  • drinking too many caffeinated or carbonated beverages
  • stress
  • smoking

Recurrent indigestion can sometimes be a symptom of an underlying medical condition, such as:

People with severe or recurring indigestion should see a doctor. They should seek immediate medical attention if indigestion accompanies any of the following symptoms:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • difficulty swallowing
  • severe or frequent vomiting, especially if vomit contains blood
  • black, tarry, or bloody stool
  • shortness of breath
  • severe and persistent abdominal pain
  • chest, jaw, neck, or arm pain
  • jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin and arms

2. Stress and anxiety

The gut and brain share many of the same nerve connections. For this reason, stress and anxiety can have a significant effect on the digestive system.

When a person feels stressed or anxious, their body releases stress hormones.

Some of these hormones enter the digestive tract, where they can lead to the following symptoms and conditions:

3. Premenstrual syndrome

Many people have premenstrual syndrome (PMS), which means that they experience a range of symptoms in the week before their period.

In a 2014 study involving healthy women, scientists investigated the relationships between digestive symptoms, mood, and menstruation.

Of the 156 participants, 73 percent reported experiencing at least one of the following digestive symptoms before or during their period:

  • bloating
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • pelvic pain

Digestive issues were more common among participants who also experienced psychological symptoms, such as depressed mood, anxiety, and fatigue. The authors suggested that certain hormones that the body releases during menstruation may affect gut function.

4. Pregnancy

Digestive issues are common during pregnancy, and they may occur as a result of the hormonal changes taking place inside the woman’s body. In the later stages of pregnancy, the enlarging womb and fetus can also place an increasing amount of pressure on the abdominal cavity.

Digestive problems that can occur during pregnancy include:

  • heartburn and acid reflux
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • bloating
  • belching or gas
  • nausea and vomiting

5. Food poisoning

Man eating lunch in park
Food poisoning is a common cause of stomach churning.

Food poisoning is a common illness that affects people who have consumed contaminated foods or beverages. The most common causes of food poisoning are harmful bacteria and viruses. Other causes include certain parasites, molds, and chemicals.

Although anyone can get food poisoning, the following people have a higher risk:

  • young children
  • pregnant women
  • older adults
  • people with weakened immune systems, such as those undergoing organ transplants or living with HIV

The symptoms of food poisoning can range from mild to severe, and they can take hours or even days to appear after a person consumes the contaminated food.

Common symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • indigestion
  • abdominal pain and cramps
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • chills

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), anyone who experiences any of the following symptoms should see a doctor:

  • a temperature exceeding 101.5°F
  • frequent vomiting
  • dehydration
  • dizziness when standing up
  • diarrhea lasting more than 3 days
  • blood in the stool

6. Viral gastroenteritis

Viral gastroenteritis, which people often refer to as “stomach flu,” is a viral infection of the intestines.

The most common cause of viral gastroenteritis in adults is norovirus, which accounts for between 19 and 21 million cases of the illness each year in the United States. In children, the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis is rotavirus.

General symptoms of viral gastroenteritis include:

  • abdominal pain and cramping
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • watery diarrhea
  • fever

Viral gastroenteritis is usually not serious. However, frequent vomiting and diarrhea can lead to severe dehydration, especially in infants and young children. Signs and symptoms of dehydration include:

  • thirst
  • dry mouth
  • infrequent urination
  • sunken eyes or cheeks
  • lethargy
  • reduced skin turgor, which is when the skin stays raised after pinching it

Symptoms requiring prompt medical attention include:

  • lethargy or irritability
  • high fever
  • frequent vomiting
  • diarrhea lasting more than 2 days
  • passing six or more loose stools in a day
  • black, tarry, or bloody stools
  • severe pain in the abdomen or rectum

Treatment for people with viral gastroenteritis primarily involves replacing lost fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration.

7. Lactose intolerance

Stomach churning can sometimes be a symptom of a food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance.

People with lactose intolerance experience digestive symptoms after they consume foods containing lactose, a sugar that is naturally present in milk and dairy products. These symptoms occur because their body does not produce enough lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose.

Lactose intolerance is different than a milk allergy, which is due to an immune response.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance can include:

  • bloating and gas
  • abdominal pain and cramping
  • stomach churning
  • nausea or vomiting
  • diarrhea or loose, foul-smelling stools

Many people with lactose intolerance can manage their symptoms by making dietary changes to avoid this sugar.

8. Celiac disease

People with celiac disease experience digestive symptoms after eating products containing gluten. Gluten is a protein that occurs mainly in wheat, barley, and rye.

In people with celiac disease, the immune system overreacts to the presence of gluten and begins attacking the lining of the small intestine.

The symptoms of celiac disease can vary between people. However, some common digestive symptoms of this condition include:

  • abdominal pain or cramping
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • bloating and gas
  • persistent diarrhea or constipation
  • pale, fatty, or foul-smelling stools

Other symptoms can include:

  • unexplained weight loss or gain
  • bone or joint pain
  • muscle cramps
  • tingling or numbness in the legs
  • mouth sores
  • an itchy skin rash
  • confusion and fatigue
  • delayed growth or puberty in children

As the symptoms can be similar to those of other digestive disorders, celiac disease can be difficult for doctors to diagnose. People with celiac disease can manage their symptoms by adopting a gluten-free diet.

9. IBS

IBS is a disorder that affects the function of the bowel. Between 10 and 15 percent of people in the U.S. have IBS.

Experts do not know what causes IBS, but they believe that it may be due to the increased sensitivity of the bowels.

Common symptoms of IBS include:

  • abdominal pain or discomfort
  • bloating
  • diarrhea or constipation

Some people with IBS may also experience a broader range of symptoms, including:

Doctors generally recommend dietary and lifestyle changes for people with IBS. However, they might also prescribe medications to help relieve symptoms.

10. Intestinal obstruction

An intestinal obstruction is a potential complication of surgery.
An intestinal obstruction is a potential complication of surgery.

An intestinal obstruction is a blockage within the small or large intestine that can prevent digested food and waste products from passing through.

Causes of an intestinal obstruction can include:

  • a hernia
  • a tumor
  • scar tissue resulting from intestinal surgery

The most common symptoms of an obstruction include:

  • bloating and gurgling
  • abdominal pain that comes in waves
  • inability to pass gas
  • nausea
  • vomiting

Intestinal obstructions can lead to potentially life-threatening complications. People with symptoms of an obstruction should seek immediate medical attention.

11. Medications

Some medications can cause digestive symptoms, such as stomach churning, as a side effect. These include:

  • laxatives
  • certain antibiotics
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen

When to see a doctor

People should speak to a doctor if they experience stomach churning that worsens, does not improve, or recurs.

It is also advisable to seek medical attention if stomach churning accompanies other concerning symptoms, including:

  • intense pain
  • severe dehydration
  • severe or persistent diarrhea or vomiting
  • blood in vomit or stools
  • unexplained weight loss
  • high fever

Treatment and prevention

The treatment for a churning stomach depends on its underlying cause. However, some steps that people can take to help prevent or alleviate stomach churning include:

  • managing stress and anxiety levels
  • practicing good food hygiene
  • avoiding foods that trigger symptoms
  • reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption
  • consuming products containing real ginger, which may help protect against digestive symptoms
  • taking antacids to soothe heartburn
  • trying probiotics, which may help promote better gut health


There are many possible causes of stomach churning, including indigestion, stress and anxiety, and taking certain medications.

Stomach churning often only causes temporary discomfort before resolving without treatment. However, this symptom can sometimes be a sign of an underlying health issue.

People with persistent or recurrent stomach churning should see a doctor, especially if it occurs alongside severe or concerning symptoms.