What Is the Gastrocolic Reflex?

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The gastrocolic reflex is a physiological reflex that stimulates movement in your lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract after eating. It isn’t a disease or medical condition, but rather a normal reflex that helps your body make room for more food within your GI tract after eating. 

However, in adults, it can sometimes be unusually strong and result in symptoms such as abdominal cramps and pain, bowel urgency, or diarrhea. Many people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) often experience these symptoms associated with a strong gastrocolic reflex. A more active gastrocolic reflex in infants is normal.

Woman with abdominal discomfort after eating

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Overactive Gastrocolic Reflex Symptoms

Because the gastrocolic reflex is a normal physiologic process, many people don’t even notice any symptoms related to it. However, symptoms of a strong or overactive gastrocolic reflex are more noticeable and vary from person to person.

The gastrocolic reflex stimulates the colon (part of the large intestine) to move digested food along and out of the GI tract. Because of this, it makes sense that the symptoms associated with an overactive gastrocolic reflex correspond with the GI tract. These include:

Causes of Overactive Gastrocolic Reflex

The exact causes of a strong or overactive gastrocolic reflex are unknown. A suspected cause of an overactive gastrocolic reflex, especially in people with IBS, may be abnormal levels of hormones and neuropeptides (chemical messengers) responsible for regulating the motility of the digestive system.

Changes in the gut microbiome (the community of microbes that normally inhabit the gut) might cause changes in the colon’s motility (the contraction of the muscles of the GI tract) and result in symptoms. However, more research is needed to investigate the exact causes of a potent gastrocolic reflex.

Overactive gastrocolic reflexes are often suspected as the cause, at least in part, of symptoms in other medical conditions. These include:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): A functional gastrointestinal disorder with symptoms including constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Dumping syndrome (DS): A condition in which food moves too quickly from the stomach to the small intestine, especially in people who have had bariatric surgery
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): Immune-mediated conditions that display chronic inflammation of the lower digestive tract

What Is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. With IBS, the muscles in the colon that move digested food along are especially sensitive in their response to certain triggers.

Symptoms of IBS include stomach cramps, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. Symptom severity varies and ranges from mild to debilitating. People with IBS manage the condition by medications and modifying their diet and lifestyle.

Additional factors that might heighten the response of the gastrocolic reflex include:

  • Eating a large meal, especially if it’s high in fat
  • Drinking large amounts of cold liquid at once
  • Consuming foods or beverages containing lactose (a milk sugar), if you are lactose intolerant
  • Consuming foods or beverages containing fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs), if you are sensitive to FODMAPs (these are certain short-chain carbohydrates that can be poorly absorbed)

Overactive Gastrocolic Reflex Treatment

Due to the nature of the gastrocolic reflex, adjusting your diet can often help relieve symptoms. If certain foods or beverages seem to make your symptoms worse, limit or avoid those foods to help minimize symptoms. Eating smaller meals and avoiding meals high in fat may also help. 

Additionally, sipping on some peppermint tea or taking a peppermint oil supplement, both of which have antispasmodic effects, prior to eating may help ease symptoms.

If dietary modifications alone are not enough to ease symptoms, treatment for overactive gastrocolic reflex may include medication. Commonly prescribed medications include antispasmodics, tricyclic antidepressants, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). The medication Zofran (ondansetron) may also help provide relief for people with IBS with the main symptoms of diarrhea and bowel urgency.

Antibiotics (drugs that kill or inhibit bacteria) and probiotics (beneficial strains of bacteria) have also been used to help restore gut flora back to normal, which helps regulate the response of important elements of the gastrocolic reflex.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

The gastrocolic reflex is a natural bodily process that helps ensure there is enough room in your digestive tract for the food and beverages you consume. Needing to have a bowel movement after eating does not usually warrant a visit to your healthcare provider.

However, if you notice symptoms related to an overactive gastrocolic reflex that last for more than a few days, contact your healthcare provider. They may be able to help identify a cause for your heightened gastrocolic reflex. These symptoms include:

  • Sudden urge to have a bowel movement, especially after eating
  • Chronic diarrhea, or loose watery stools
  • Abdominal pain and/or cramping
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Excessive flatulence (gas)

Depending on the duration and severity of these symptoms, your healthcare provider may recommend tests to diagnose any underlying health conditions.

Summary

The gastrocolic reflex is a normal physiological response to food consumption in which the body signals the digestive tract to contract and move food along and out. This makes room for more food within the digestive tract.

Some people, including those with certain medical conditions such as IBS, may have an overactive gastrocolic reflex. They experience symptoms right after eating such as abdominal cramping, flatulence, a sudden urge to have a bowel movement, or diarrhea.

Modifying your diet and possibly taking medications may help reduce symptoms of an exaggerated gastrocolic reflex.

A Word From Verywell

An overactive gastrocolic reflex can interrupt your daily life. If you regularly find yourself suddenly needing to have a bowel movement right after eating or experience frequent abdominal cramping or diarrhea associated with eating, you should talk with your healthcare provider to try to discover the underlying cause of your overactive gastrocolic reflex.

This way, you can work together to make an effective treatment plan.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does it take to fully digest food?

    The average time it takes to fully digest food from when you eat it to when it exits your body varies from person to person. It can take anywhere up to two to five days to fully digest food you have eaten.

    Medical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroparesis (the stomach takes longer to empty), inflammatory bowel disease, or functional dyspepsia (indigestion) can affect how food moves through your digestive system, thus altering the transit time.

  • Which foods digest quickly?

    Foods that are digested quickly include carbohydrate foods, especially those with a high glycemic index (a measure of how a food raises blood sugar). Foods such as white bread, white rice, crackers, pastries, candy, cereals, fruit and vegetable juice, and fruit are digested quickly. Other foods that digest relatively quickly include raw or cooked vegetables, oats, and legumes (beans, lentils, and peas).

    However, keep in mind that these foods are digested quickly when eaten alone. Any foods containing fat, protein, or extra fiber eaten in combination with them will increase digestion time.

  • Is peppermint good for IBS?

    Peppermint oil has properties that may help ease symptoms, such as abdominal pain, in people with IBS. A comprehensive 2019 meta-analysis showed that enteric-coated peppermint oil taken by mouth was a safe and effective treatment for pain and overall symptoms in adults with IBS.


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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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