What Stomach Cramps Can Say About Your Health, According To Science

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Your run of the mill stomach ache probably isn't too much cause for concern. You ate something that didn't agree with you, and that's that. But if you have stomach cramps out of the blue and can't figure out what the deal is, your stomach cramps can actually say a lot about your health. From periods, to food allergies, to potential irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), your stomach gurgles and grumbles can be so much more than just the result of a tuna sandwich that's gone off.

You may need to pay attention to your symptoms closely on your own; a meta-analysis of 14 studies in 2014 found that in one-third of cases, people who went to their GPs with abdominal pain weren't given a diagnosis because the doctor wasn't sure of the cause. When do you get your cramps? Do you eat beforehand, and what's in those meals? Are they worse at a particular time of day, or at one point in the month? How severe is the pain? Serious stomach cramps and pain may indicate a medical emergency, so if you're in a lot of agony and your stomach won't stop contracting, get to the GP or the emergency room ASAP. Otherwise, here's what your stomach cramps may be trying to tell you about your health.

1. You're Hungry

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Sometimes stomach cramps are just signals that you need some food. "Hunger pangs, or hunger pains, are caused by strong contractions of the stomach when it’s empty," explains Healthline. However, just because your stomach is contracting when it's empty doesn't mean you actually need to eat; it may just be your stomach reacting to a change in your eating schedule. We know from research in 2013 that the stomach has its own circadian clock which keeps track of eating patterns across the 24 hours of the day, and if you don't eat at the usual time — or have a disrupted eating pattern because of jet lag — your stomach is going to let you know about it.

2. Your Period Is Coming

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Stomach cramps can be related to menstrual cramping. Obstetrician Nancy Cossler told Women's Health, "Hormones cause contractions of the uterine muscle, which causes cramping. It's completely normal if your stomach cramps, causing an upset stomach or diarrhea." Uterine contractions during your menstrual period are caused by prostaglandins, and they can be intense — but they don't mean there's anything problematic to worry about.

3. You Have A Food Allergy

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Cramping after eating particular meals can mean you have an allergy or intolerance to something you ate. Cramps are one of the most common symptoms of a food allergy, along with vomiting and nausea; if they show up after you eat dairy, gluten, shellfish, wheat, or nuts, according to Healthline, you can talk to an allergist about the best course of action.

4. You're Taking Too Many Vitamins

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This is an unusual one, but it's a possibility. If you take too many supplements based around vitamin C or zinc without proper supervision by doctors, you may be causing yourself some stomach upsets. "Too much vitamin C or zinc could cause nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps," according to WebMD.

5. You Have Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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Irritable bowel syndrome, otherwise known as spastic colon, can cause cramping in the abdominal region, along with a host of other symptoms including bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea on a regular basis. IBS is caused by a variety of factors, including a intestine that regularly cramps and an over-sensitive nervous system that registers high levels of discomfort as you process food. Women are twice as likely as men to have IBS.

6. You Have Trapped Gas Or Constipation

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If your cramps don't seem to have anything to do with your pattern of eating, there's another possibility. "Stomach cramps with bloating are often caused by trapped wind. This is a very common problem that can be embarrassing but is easily dealt with," says the National Health Service. Massage your stomach to see if that might help, or see a doctor if you can't seem to pass the obstruction without help.

7. You Have Gallbladder Issues

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Pain after eating a meal with a high fat content can indicate that your gallbladder is having problems digesting this kind of food, according to gastroenterologist Hardeep Singh. "Women are especially prone to gallbladder disease," he noted in an article for St. Joseph's Health in 2016. If you experience what feels like serious stomach cramping after a meal, your gallbladder may have gallstones — hardened pieces of digestive liquid — blocking its ducts. The "attack" comes when the gallbladder tries to secrete bile through its ducts after you eat, and can't get any through.

A gallbladder attack is extremely painful, and it's recommended that you get help as soon as you can if you experience pain in your upper right abdomen.

8. You Have Stomach Flu

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Cramps that come on suddenly and are accompanied by diarrhea, nausea or vomiting indicate that you may have gastroenteritis, or the stomach flu. This, the National Health Service explains, is "a viral or bacterial infection of the stomach and bowel, which should get better without treatment after a few days." The main risk of gastroenteritis is dehydration and loss of nutrition, as you'll likely not be able to keep food or liquids in your system while it runs its course. The symptoms of gastroenteritis are similar to those of food poisoning, and both will pass off without much treatment over several days.

Cramps can be just a minor inconvenience, but they could be a sign of something bigger. If you're cramping on the regular, pay attention and talk to your doctor; your stomach could need a bit of help.