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 indicate an underlying condition.

This article describes what stomach churning feels like, if it is normal, and 11 possible causes.

We also explain when to see a doctor and provide some tips for treating and preventing stomach churning.

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Stomach churning is often only temporary.

Stomach churning is a feeling of discomfort in a person’s abdominal area. A person may feel uneasy and experience the following gastrointestinal symptoms in their abdomen:

People may use other terms such as “stomach tied in knots” and “butterflies in the stomach” to describe this unsettling sensation.

Stomach churning has a variety of potential causes. These include conditions such as indigestion, which can have less serious causes, and other conditions requiring urgent medical attention.

Anyone concerned about their symptoms should speak with a healthcare professional.

Below, some potential causes of stomach churning are explained in further detail.

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

Other symptoms of indigestion can include:

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

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:

The gut and brain share many of the same nerve connections. For this reason, stress and anxiety can significantly affect 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:

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

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, common symptoms of PMS include:

Researchers are unclear exactly what causes PMS, but changes in hormones during the menstrual cycle may play a role.

Digestive issues may occur during pregnancy due to the hormonal changes inside a person’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:

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 people
  • 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
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea or bloody diarrhea
  • fever

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

  • a high temperature exceeding 102°F
  • frequent vomiting
  • dehydration
  • dizziness when standing up
  • diarrhea lasting more than 3 days
  • blood in the stool

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 19–21 million cases of the illness each year in the United States. In children younger than 24 months, the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis is rotavirus.

General symptoms of viral gastroenteritis include:

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

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.

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

People with lactose intolerance experience digestive symptoms after consuming foods containing lactose, a sugar 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 from a milk allergy, which occurs due to an immune response.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance can include:

  • bloating and gas
  • abdominal pain and cramping
  • stomach growling or rumbling sounds
  • 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.

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 small intestine lining.

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
  • bone or joint pain
  • tingling or numbness in the legs
  • mouth sores
  • an itchy skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis)
  • confusion and fatigue
  • delayed growth or puberty in children
  • reproductive issues in females, such as missed periods

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.

IBS is a disorder that affects the function of the bowel. Between 10 and 15% 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

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

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 intestinal obstruction include:

  • a hernia
  • a tumor
  • scar tissue resulting from intestinal surgery
  • IBS
  • the intestine twisting around itself
  • foreign objects

Symptoms of an obstruction include:

  • bloating and swelling in the abdomen
  • severe abdominal pain or cramping
  • loud gurgling sounds from the abdomen
  • inability to pass gas
  • constipation
  • nausea
  • vomiting

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

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

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

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

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:

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.

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