Diet and Nutrition

How Long Does It Take to Digest Food?

How Long Does It Take to Digest Food?

Digestion is when the body breaks down the food we consume into smaller particles to get absorbed into the bloodstream. The entire digestion process is divided into three different stages: oral, gastric, and intestinal.

The Process of Digestion

The entire process of digestion is divided into three different stages:

Oral Stage

This stage involves the process of chewing in which the food breaks down into smaller particles and then gets mixed with the saliva. There is an enzyme present in the saliva called amylase that acts on the carbohydrates present in the food to begin the process of digestion. These small food particles would then form a soft mass called bolus, so it would become easy to swallow.

Gastric Stage

There is an enzyme present in the stomach called pepsin, which further helps break down the proteins contained in the smaller food particles. The acid present in the stomach plays a very important role when it comes to the prevention of food-borne illnesses, including killing harmful viruses or bacteria that may have existed in the food. 

Intestinal Stage

The removed water and nutrients from the digested food would pass through the walls of the small intestine. They would enter the bloodstream and then travel to the different parts of the body, where they are further used for building 

Any undigested or unabsorbed food particles move to the colon or large intestine, where more water and nutrients get absorbed. Remaining food particles are then stored in the rectum until it exits the body through defecation. 

How long does it take to digest food?

In most cases, food moves through the stomach and then into the small intestine within a period of 6-8 hours. Food would then pass into the colon or large intestine. The exact time of food moving through the bowels may vary and depends on the following factors:

  • The type and amount of food consumed: Foods that are rich in protein and fatty foods, including fish and meat, would take a longer time to digest compared to foods that are rich in fiber, such as vegetables and fruits. Crackers, chocolates, candies, pastries, and other sweets are also easily digested. 
  • Gender: According to a study conducted in 1980, the transit time of food through the colon alone takes approximately 47 hours in women and 33 hours in men. 

Once food has reached the large intestine, it can stay there for one day or more for further breakdown. 

How does the body control the process of digestion?

The digestive system can only function when it works together with the nervous system, particularly the enteric nervous system. Signals are sent to the nervous system to produce the digestive fluid for secretion, muscle contraction to pass food down the digestive tract, and possible bowel movements. For this reason, any type of disorders in the nervous system directly affects the digestive system and can cause digestive problems and other bowel disorders. 

The cells that line the stomach and small intestine produce and release the hormones, which help control the process of digestion. These hormones are the ones that tell the body when to produce digestive juices. They also send signals to the brain whenever a person is hungry or full. Hormones are also produced by the pancreas, which is also an important organ for digestion and the regulation of blood sugar levels. 

Conditions that Affect the Process of Digestion

Certain digestive issues can disrupt the process of digestion. These conditions would cause symptoms, such as heartburn, gas, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation

  • Celiac DiseaseThis disease is also called gluten-sensitive enteropathy or sprue. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when genetically predisposed individuals consume gluten, which is a type of protein found in barley, rye, and wheat. When gluten is consumed, the body's immune system responds by attacking the small intestine and cause symptoms, such as abdominal discomfort, bloating, and diarrhea. These symptoms can be managed by consuming a gluten-free diet. 
  • Acid Reflux - This condition occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) starts to weaken and would allow the stomach acid to come up the esophagus. This sensation is described as a burning feeling called heartburn. When a person frequently experiences heartburn, it is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). 
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) - It is a common disorder of the large intestine and causes symptoms, such as abdominal pain, bloating, cramping, gas, and constipation or diarrhea, or both. IBS is a chronic condition of the digestive system. 
  • Constipation - This condition occurs when a person experiences infrequent bowel movements. A constipated person usually passes dry and hard stools. Other symptoms of constipation may include bloating, abdominal pain, and the feeling of incomplete bowel movements. Constipation can also lead to complications, such as the formation of hemorrhoids, fecal impaction, and anal fissures. 
  • Lactose IntoleranceThis condition occurs when the body is unable to break down lactose, which usually found in milk, yogurt, and other dairy products. People become lactose intolerant when their small intestine stops making lactase, which is an enzyme that digests lactose. The common symptoms of lactose intolerance are flatulence or gas, gurgling sounds in the stomach, diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain, or cramps.

How to Improve Digestion

To enjoy a healthy digestive system and prevent other digestive problems, try the following tips below:

  • Consume a balanced diet - Foods that are rich in fiber, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are helpful in moving the food through the digestive system. These foods would also help prevent constipation, encourage a healthy weight loss, and maintain the normal flora in the gut.
  • Increase fluid intake - Constipation can be prevented if the body is well-hydrated. Also, avoid the consumption of sugary drinks. 
  • Consume probiotic foods - Probiotics are beneficial when it comes to restoring the balance of bacteria in the gut. Foods that are rich in probiotics are kefir, fermented vegetables, yogurt, miso, and kimchi. Some probiotics also come in the form of supplements. 
  • Increase physical activity - Carrying out daily physical activities is very important and can greatly benefit the digestive tract. There are some people who find gentle walking after meals beneficial in reducing bloating, gas, and constipation. 
  • Manage stress - Stress can also influence a person's digestion and cause symptoms, which include bloating, cramping, or heartburn. Engaging in meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises can help reduce stress levels. Getting enough sleep at night can also improve digestion and reduce stress. 

Key Takeaways

  • Digestion is a process wherein the body breaks down food into small particles.
  • In most cases, food moves through the stomach and then into the small intestine within a period of 6-8 hours.
  • The exact time of food moving through the bowels may vary and depends on a person's gender, the type and amount of food consumed, and digestive problems.