Gastrocolic Reflex Symptoms and Factors That Can Trigger Hyperactive Gastrocolic Reflex

Do you experience bowel movements shortly after a meal? It could be your gastrocolic reflex acting up or a symptom of a serious medical condition.  

A woman experiencing bloating an diarrhea, which are some of the symptoms of heightened gastrocolic reflex

Key takeaways:

  • Gastrocolic reflex is a normal physiological response that increases the motility of the gut following a meal. 
  • Symptoms of a heightened gastrocolic reflex include abdominal pain, flatulence, diarrhea, and bloating. 
  • A hyperactive or overactive gastrocolic reflex is normal in infants aged 18-27 months. 
  • Gastrocolic reflex is caused by a coordinated response through stretch receptors in the stomach and the enteric system, which increases motility in the intestine. In adults, an overactive gastrocolic reflex is usually caused by medical conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The gastrocolic reflex is a physiological response to food intake that stimulates the movement of the lower gastrointestinal tract. Its function is to move feces toward the rectum to create room for more food.   

A heightened gastrocolic reflex leads to an urge to pass stool during or shortly after a meal. This is common and normal in children aged 18–27 months.

Adults may also experience a strong gastrocolic reflex, also called an overactive or hyperactive gastrocolic reflex. But, it is usually associated with gastrointestinal conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Keep reading to learn more about the causes and symptoms of a hyperactive gastrocolic reflex, the foods that can worsen it, and how to alleviate symptoms associated with a strong gastrocolic reflex.  

Is hyperactive gastrocolic reflex normal in adults?

Occasionally needing to empty your bowels after eating is nothing to be concerned about. 

However, if it starts to happen frequently and comes with severe symptoms, you should speak with a doctor because there probably is an underlying cause. 

Is gastrocolic reflex dangerous?

Gastrocolic reflex is neither bad nor dangerous. It is a normal physiological response to food in the digestive tract, which helps with the movement of food down the lower digestive tract.

While gastrocolic reflex is good for your digestive system, an overly active reflex may be harmful as it can lead to bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal discomfort. It can cause you to pass watery stools frequently, which may lead to dehydration, a potentially dangerous condition.

Symptoms of hyperactive gastrocolic reflex

The symptoms of a hyperactive gastrocolic reflex are consistent with some symptoms of health conditions linked to it, especially IBS. 

Some of the most common symptoms include: 

  • Abdominal bloating: Hyperactive gastrocolic reflex can make a person's belly feel uncomfortably full and tight after a meal, even without overeating. They may also feel like there is air or gas in their abdomen.
  • Diarrhea: Loose and watery stool often accompanied by frequent bowel movements. 
  • Postprandial contractions: After-meal contractions in the gastrointestinal tract that leads to a sudden urge to pass stool.   
  • Flatulence: Build up of gas in the digestive tract that causes discomfort. Farting usually relieves the discomfort. 

Causes of hyperactive gastrocolic reflex

The exact causes of a hyperactive gastrocolic reflex are yet to be identified. But it has been observed that certain health conditions can affect the gastrocolic reflex in individuals.

Some of the conditions and disorders that have been linked to a heightened gastrocolic reflex are: 

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome is not a specific disease. Instead, it is an accumulation of symptoms that affect the gastrointestinal tract. It’s a common disorder that affects about 12% of people in the United States.

There are three types of IBS:

  • IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D)
  • IBS with constipation (IBS-C)
  • IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M). 

Strong gastrocolic reflex mainly affects people with IBS-D.  

Symptoms of IBS typically include:

  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Diarrhea, constipation, or an alternation
  • Cramping
  • Change in bowel habits

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

Inflammatory bowel disease is a medical term used to describe two intestinal disorders —ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease— that cause chronic digestive tract inflammation. 

The difference between the two disorders is that Crohn's disease can affect any part of the digestive tract, while ulcerative colitis is limited to the colon. 

Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis can lead to serious complications like colorectal cancer, intestinal perforation, bowel obstruction, gastrointestinal fistulas (abnormal tunnels that connect to the skin or another organ), and malnutrition.

The symptoms of IBD include:

  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Indigestion
  • Constipation 
  • Tenesmus (the urge to defecate after doing so)
  • Weight loss

Dumping syndrome

Dumping syndrome, also known as rapid gastric emptying, is a condition in which food moves too quickly from the stomach into the small intestine. 

The most common cause of dumping syndrome is surgery on the stomach or esophagus, like bariatric surgery (weight loss surgery) and esophagectomy (removal of part or all of the esophagus).  

Dumping syndrome is also likely to occur in people with diabetes —especially type 2, Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, and duodenal ulcers. 

Early symptoms of dumping syndrome are usually experienced within 30 minutes after eating and may include: 

  • Diarrhea 
  • Abdominal pain and cramps
  • Bloating
  • Feeling light-headed
  • Nausea 
  • Headache

Late dumping syndrome symptoms start one to three hours after a meal and may include the following: 

  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Weakness 
  • Jitters
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Hunger 

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is an immune reaction to gluten, a protein in many grains. Over a prolonged period, the repetitive immune response can damage the lining of the small intestine leading to difficulty in digestion and malabsorption. 

The symptoms of celiac disease and IBS are similar and sometimes lead to a misdiagnosis. According to a scientific study, around 5% of patients diagnosed with IBS tested positive for celiac disease.

However, celiac disease may cause other symptoms unrelated to the gastrointestinal tract, unlike IBS. These symptoms include: 

  • Fatigue
  • Skin rash
  • Loss of bone density
  • Joint pain
  • Headaches 

Other factors that can trigger hyperactive gastrocolic reflex

There are other factors that can affect how strong your intestinal contractions are. The following have been found to cause a heightened gastrocolic reflex: 

  • Foods with unhealthy fat
  • Food sensitivity like non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) disorder 
  • Stress 
  • Eating a large quantity of food

When these factors cause a strong gastrocolic reflex, it’s usually easier to manage than when a disorder or disease causes it. 

Foods that can trigger hyperactive gastrocolic reflex

Research has shown that foods that contain a lot of fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs) can exacerbate the symptoms of IBS, a common cause of an overactive reflex.

Examples of high FODMAP foods include wheat, dairy, rye, artificial sweeteners used in sugar-free products, garlic, onion, and vegetables like asparagus.  

Asides from high FODMAP foods, some other foods and beverages can lead to a hyperactive reflex, such as: 

  • Spicy food
  • Food that contains a lot of fat
  • Coffee/caffeinated products
  • Alcohol   

How to treat hyperactive gastrocolic reflex symptoms

The method of easing the symptoms of a hyperactive gastrocolic reflex depends on the cause and any associated medical condition.

Some of the ways an overactive reflex can be controlled or managed include:   

Gluten-free and low FODMAP diet

IBS patients can improve their symptoms by following a gluten-free and low-FODMAP diet plan.  

A gluten-free diet also benefits people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) disorder. The term NCGS describes people who do not have celiac disease, but their symptoms, including a heightened gastrocolic reflex, improve when they eliminate gluten from their diet. 

In patients with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is mandatory to prevent symptoms associated with an overactive gastrocolic reflex and damage to the lining of the small intestine. 


Medications are used to slow the movement of the intestines and relieve the symptoms of a hyperactive gastrocolic reflex if changes to the diet don't help. 

One of the common drugs used is antispasmodics. They prevent smooth muscle spasms (involuntary contractions) in the gut. Antispasmodics have been used to treat IBS for decades.

Taking peppermint tea or a peppermint oil supplement before a meal may also help with symptoms of IBS because of their antispasmodic properties.  

Other drugs used include tricyclic antidepressants, antiemetics, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Stress management

Stress negatively impacts gut health and may trigger IBS symptoms in people with the condition. 

If you can’t identify the stressors in your life, try keeping a record of your daily activities and symptoms. You may need to do this for some time because certain stressors can take weeks or months before causing a flare-up.

Once you identify the stressors, the next thing is to work toward eliminating them or developing an appropriate coping mechanism. 

You shouldn’t stop keeping records after identifying the things that stress you. It is important to monitor the development of your stress management skills and the effects on your symptoms. 

Parting words

Gastrocolic reflex is a normal body response to eating that sometimes becomes exaggerated. This can be due to non-disease-related causes like overeating and alcohol use or as a result of a medical condition. 

Depending on the cause of your strong gut reflex and the severity of symptoms, the tips suggested in this article may improve your quality of life. 

Talk to a qualified healthcare professional before starting any restrictive diet or taking medications. They will help you identify the cause of your overactive gastrocolic reflex and the best way to tackle it.