How long does it take food to pass through the digestive system?

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If you don’t know already, then let me make you aware of an interesting fact: the food that you eat isn’t just dropped from your mouth into your stomach and digested instantly; instead, the process of digestion normally takes more than 6-7 hours – or even longer.

However, when you have diarrhea (commonly referred to as ‘loose motion’ in some parts of the world), you must have noticed that the journey of food from the mouth to the exit of the body hardly takes any time at all. Why is that?

Before we can understand the mechanism of diarrhea, it helps if we take a quick look at how digestion normally takes place.

The journey of food through the body

When you first eat food, it’s broken down into smaller pieces as a result of the crushing action of the teeth. These pieces of food are then moistened by saliva, and the tongue pushes the food to the back of the mouth so that it can be swallowed. At that point, it travels through the esophagus (food pipe) and ends up in the stomach.

The digestive system.

There, the food is processed in all sorts of ways with the help of enzymes and juices, before being passed on to the small intestine. It absorbs complex molecules, such as sugars, amino acids and fatty acids, and subsequently sends the undigested and unabsorbed food to the large intestine.

When the food finishes its travels through the digestive tract, what remains of your food heads to the rectum to await the final leg of its journey, i.e., the exit from the body. The large intestine comprises a cluster of nerves that react to pressure. Once the amount of stool in the intestine reaches critical mass, it sends a signal to the brain that you are ready to hit the restroom.

When you’re actually engaged in defecating, you consciously control the sphincter, and let the feces exit the body for good. (Note: This is a gross oversimplification of the digestion process; I recommend you read this article for a more detailed description of digestion.)

What happens during diarrhea?

All systems work perfectly under normal conditions, but when you eat something ‘bad’ (i.e., food poisoning), it ‘upsets’ (pun intended) your digestive system, and things go haywire.

Most cases of diarrhea are caused by bacteria, parasites or viruses. (Photo Credit : )

When you eat something that causes a bacterial infection or inflammation of the gut, abnormal reactions occur within the stomach and a sophisticated suite of nerves (present in the gut) snap into action. The ‘threat’ signal is transmitted to the brain, which hits the ‘emergency’ button and orders the gut to flush everything out ASAP. To aid the flushing, water and other fluids mix with the ‘bad food’ and hasten the exit process of that food from within the body.

Here’s an analogy to understand the process better: suppose your bowels are like a train track and the food you ingest is like a set of cars running on it. The transit time from Station A (mouth) to Station B (anus) is normally a few hours. Everything works normally, as long as the set of trains you run on the track is good.

The moment you put a bad set of cars on the tracks, however, a string of events happen. The sensors installed along the track (nerves in the lining of the gut) detect that the set of cars is ‘alien’ or unidentified, and they send a distress signal to the supervisor (brain). The brain has two choices: it can send the cars violently back to Station A (the act of vomiting), but that would be painful and may cause damage to the track (inflammation). Or, it could send the set of bad cars barreling down to Station B.

To facilitate the swift execution of the second option (i.e., diarrhea), the brain floods the tunnels with water and other fluids. This floods the bad cars with water, making them somewhat thin, gooey and soggy, which greatly helps to chuck the bad cars out of the system in no time.

That’s why diarrhea travels so quickly through the body; sometimes, it’s even hard to distinguish between certain things that feel similar… before you’re committed.

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Digestive System

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What Is the Digestive System?

Food is our fuel, and its nutrients give our bodies’ cells the energy and substances they need to work. But before food can do that, it must be digested into small pieces the body can absorb and use.

The first step in the digestive process happens before we even taste food. Just by smelling that homemade apple pie or thinking about how delicious that ripe tomato is going to be, you start salivating — and the digestive process begins in preparation for that first bite.

Almost all animals have a tube-type digestive system in which food:

  • enters the mouth
  • passes through a long tube
  • exits the body as feces (poop) through the anus

Along the way, food is broken down into tiny molecules so that the body can absorb nutrients it needs:

  • Protein must be broken down into amino acids.
  • Starches break down into simple sugars.
  • Fats break down into into fatty acids and glycerol.

The waste parts of food that the body can’t use are what leave the body as feces.

How Does Digestion Work?

The digestive system is made up of the alimentary canal (also called the digestive tract) and other organs, such as the liver and pancreas. The alimentary canal is the long tube of organs — including the esophagus, stomach, and intestines — that runs from the mouth to the anus. An adult’s digestive tract is about 30 feet (about 9 meters) long.

Digestion begins in the mouth, well before food reaches the stomach. When we see, smell, taste, or even imagine a tasty meal, our salivary glands in front of the ear, under the tongue, and near the lower jaw begin making saliva (spit).

As the teeth tear and chop the food, spit moistens it for easy swallowing. A digestive enzyme in saliva called amylase (pronounced: AH-meh-lace) starts to break down some of the carbohydrates (starches and sugars) in the food even before it leaves the mouth.

Swallowing, done by muscle movements in the tongue and mouth, moves the food into the throat, or pharynx (pronounced: FAIR-inks). The pharynx is a passageway for food and air. A soft flap of tissue called the epiglottis (pronounced: ep-ih-GLAH-tus) closes over the windpipe when we swallow to prevent choking.

From the throat, food travels down a muscular tube in the chest called the esophagus (pronounced: ih-SAH-fuh-gus). Waves of muscle contractions called peristalsis (pronounced: per-uh-STALL-sus) force food down through the esophagus to the stomach. A person normally isn’t aware of the movements of the esophagus, stomach, and intestine that take place as food passes through the digestive tract.

At the end of the esophagus, a muscular ring or valve called a sphincter (pronounced: SFINK-ter) allows food to enter the stomach and then squeezes shut to keep food or fluid from flowing back up into the esophagus. The stomach muscles churn and mix the food with digestive juices that have acids and enzymes, breaking it into much smaller, digestible pieces. An acidic environment is needed for the digestion that takes place in the stomach.

By the time food is ready to leave the stomach, it has been processed into a thick liquid called chyme (pronounced: kime). A walnut-sized muscular valve at the outlet of the stomach called the pylorus (pronounced: pie-LOR-us) keeps chyme in the stomach until it reaches the right consistency to pass into the small intestine. Chyme is then squirted down into the small intestine, where digestion of food continues so the body can absorb the nutrients into the bloodstream.

The small intestine is made up of three parts:

The inner wall of the small intestine is covered with millions of microscopic, finger-like projections called villi (pronounced: VIH-lie). The villi are the vehicles through which nutrients can be absorbed into the blood. The blood then brings these nutrients to the rest of the body.

The liver (under the ribcage in the right upper part of the abdomen), the gallbladder (hidden just below the liver), and the pancreas (beneath the stomach) are not part of the alimentary canal, but these organs are essential to digestion.

The liver makes bile, which helps the body absorb fat. Bile is stored in the gallbladder until it is needed. The pancreas makes enzymes that help digest proteins, fats, and carbs. It also makes a substance that neutralizes stomach acid. These enzymes and bile travel through special pathways (called ducts) into the small intestine, where they help to break down food. The liver also helps process nutrients in the bloodstream.

From the small intestine, undigested food (and some water) travels to the large intestine through a muscular ring or valve that prevents food from returning to the small intestine. By the time food reaches the large intestine, the work of absorbing nutrients is nearly finished.

The large intestine’s main job is to remove water from the undigested matter and form solid waste (poop) to be excreted.

The large intestine has three parts:

  1. The cecum (pronounced: SEE-kum) is the beginning of the large intestine. The appendix, a small, hollow, finger-like pouch, hangs at the end of the cecum. Scientists believe the appendix is left over from a previous time in human evolution. It no longer appears to be useful to the digestive process.
  2. The colon extends from the cecum up the right side of the abdomen, across the upper abdomen, and then down the left side of the abdomen, finally connecting to the rectum.
    The colon has three parts: the ascending colon and the transverse colon, which absorb fluids and salts; and the descending colon, which holds the resulting waste. Bacteria in the colon help to digest the remaining food products.
  3. The rectum is where feces are stored until they leave the digestive system through the anus as a bowel movement.

It takes hours for our bodies to fully digest food.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD Date reviewed: May 2019

What Does it Mean When Your Poop Floats? Asking For a Friend

Tell the truth: You’ve definitely taken a look in the toilet bowl after you’ve pooped.

Most of the time, it’s probably a pretty standard view: solid, dark brown, kind of snakes around the toilet bowl. But some days, depending on how you’re feeling or what you ate, it might look a little…different; a little runnier (or harder) than usual, for example.

Even that’s likely not going to sound your alarm bells, but what if you actually see a floating log in the bowl—does that warrant a freak out? To get to the bottom (yes, pun intended) of this toilet bowl mystery, Health spoke to a gastroenterologist to get all the deets on floating poop—including when to when to relax and when to see a doctor, ASAP.

RELATED: Why Does Drinking Coffee Always Make You Poop?

So, what causes floating poop?

Poop can float for a few reasons—the most benign being that it simply has extra gas in it.

That’s because sometimes the foods that make us fart (think beans, cauliflower, and sugar-free candies) can cause such a buildup of gas that some of it gets lodged in our poop, Rabia De Latour, MD, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health, tells Health. When that happens, your poop floats simply because air is less dense than water. This is pretty normal, and only happens every once in a while.

Another reason for floating poop, however, is a bit more worrisome. “Usually when poop floats, it suggests that there’s a very high fat content,” Rabia De Latour, MD, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health, tells Health. Think of it like a separated salad dressing—the oil (fat) floats to the top.

RELATED: Why Does It Hurt When I Poop—and What Can I Do About It?

But the solution isn’t as simple as cutting a few cheeseburgers or other fatty foods out of your diet. Just because floating poop is caused by excess fat in your stool doesn’t mean you’re eating too much fat. “No matter what you eat, unless it’s something that’s digestible like certain fibers which are good for you, it shouldn’t really impact what’s ultimately manifested in your stool,” Dr. De Latour says.

Instead, floating poop and the excess fat that causes it are an indicator of several different health problems—all of which have the same symptom in common: malabsorption. “You’re basically not absorbing nutrients somewhere in your body,” says Dr. De Latour. That means something in your digestive system is out of whack, making you unable to digest your food properly.

Okay, well is floating poop—and malabsorption—ever dangerous?

Dr. De Latour says malabsorption (and floating poop) is typically caused by three main conditions: celiac disease, lactose intolerance, or pancreatitis.

All three health conditions mess with your digestion. People who have celiac disease, for example, struggle to digest gluten (a group of proteins that exist in the starch of certain grains, like wheat), while people who are lactose intolerant have trouble digesting lactose (a sugar found in milk).

For pancreatitis, it’s damage of the pancreas that makes digestion difficult. (FYI: The pancreas is a large gland behind the stomach that secretes digestive juices, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.) Pancreatitis happens when the digestive juices in the pancreas start digesting the pancreas itself and therefore harm the gland.

RELATED: Is Your Poop Healthy? The Bristol Stool Chart Shows What It Should Look Like

Each of these conditions will likely lead to more fat in a person’s poop, says Dr. De Latour. But, luckily, that’s not the only symptom that will accompany these conditions: With celiac disease or lactose intolerance, you may have to rush to the bathroom after eating gluten or lactose, and you may feel bloated, have frequent diarrhea, or feel nauseous frequently, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Pancreatitis is typically accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and unexpected weight loss.

If your daily glance into the toilet shows floating poop a few times a week for more than a month, it’s definitely time to make an appointment with a doctor, who will likely test for any underlying causes and other vitamins or nutrients you may be deficient in (remember, floating poop is a sign of malabsorption), says Dr. De Latour.

But for those who only see a floater every now and then, there’s a simpler answer: Cut down on the foods that make you gassier than usual.

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It should be common knowledge that the texture, shape, color, and consistency of your poop gives major indicators about your overall health. In some cases, doctors can diagnose people after taking stool samples to figure out underlying health problems. However, what if their poop is floating instead of sinking to the bottom. Most people are confused by this problem. It is very common, but they can’t make sense of what it means when they see floating poop.

The first thing you should do is calm down. There is nothing majorly wrong if your poop is floating like a ship, instead of sinking like the Titanic. A lot of doctors have studied why poop floats, and they concluded that the only reason your poop floats is because of extra air. How does that work out? Let us explain it in a simple manner:

Why does poop float?

Unabsorbed carbohydrates, like fiber or lactose can cause extra air in your poop because when they ferment in the colon, they end up releasing gas. Therefore, people who are lactose intolerant, or have eaten a lot of fiber or dairy may end up noticing floating poop. Drinking a lot of artificial sweeteners or alcoholic drinks also causes poop to become gassier, which means it will float around in the bowl.

When the poop has more gas or air than normal, it rises like a hot air balloon, because it is lighter. That is what makes the poop float on top of the water, instead of sinking to the bottom, like they should. Another possible reason why your poop floats may be due to excess fat in the stool, which can be caused by eating food rich in fat that the body hasn’t been able to digest.

Can I do something about it?

Yes, you can start making changes to your diet, and ensure that your body is digesting all the fat, and absorbing nutrients properly. Malabsorption is the main reason why you may see floating poop, because you have eaten food that is rich in fats and causes gas. There is no reason to be worried, because a lot of people have experienced or seen floating poop, when they get up to flush.

It is not something that you should be concerned about, but if the problem persists, and is concerning you, then you should visit your doctor. Especially if you have started suffering from gas, abdominal cramps, and get frequent foul-smelling and loose stools.

Final word

In general, floating poop is something that millions of people around the world have experienced, and it isn’t an indicator of a major underlying health problem. There are very few people, who have consistent bowel movements, and from time to time, you may see poop floating around as well. Most people notice floating poop when they have started taking a new medication or have made a change to their diet.

How Long Does It Take to Digest Food?

Caitlin Bensel

The body digests different macronutrients at different rates, and the combination of protein, carbohydrates and fats in a meal affects how quickly it moves through your system. Try an experiment to see this first-hand: Today, eat an apple by itself—chances are, you’ll feel hungry an hour later. Tomorrow, eat an apple with a serving of peanut butter, and notice how you feel satiated longer. The peanut butter adds fat and protein to your snack, helping tide you over until dinner. But what takes place during digestion to make this true? First, you have to understand how each macronutrient is processed.

“Carbohydrates are the body’s primary fuel source, which means that they need to be readily available to provide fuel to every part of the body (and, in particular, your brain and working muscles) at any given time,” says Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, FAND, director of worldwide nutrition education and training at Herbalife Nutrition.

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As such, carbs have the shortest digestion time—and refined ones, like crackers and cookies, are digested quicker than unprocessed carbs, like the apple, which tend to be rich in fiber—so they can provide quick energy. Carbs also give the body an advantage in stockpiling any excess, says Bowerman, so it can pull from storage as needed (say, when you’re hitting a SoulCycle class after work).

Protein, on the other hand, is digested more slowly than carbohydrates. The digestion process doesn’t begin until it hits the stomach, as the molecules’ large size requires more work from the body to break them down. The full breakdown of proteins into amino acids, or “building blocks” that make up muscles, occurs in the small intestine, where they’re absorbed through the intestinal lining into the bloodstream, says Bowerman.

Dietary proteins aren’t intended to be used for energy, she notes, but instead manufacture hundreds of proteins in the body, from hair, skin and muscle to hormones and enzymes critical to healthy body function. This process happens continually, so proteins aren’t in demand the way carbs are.

Fats take the longest to digest—not only are they the last of the macronutrients to leave the stomach, but they also don’t go through the majority of the digestive process until they hit the small intestine. “Since fat and water don’t mix, the processing of dietary fat takes longer, because the end products have to be water-soluble before they can be transported in the watery environment of the bloodstream,” says Bowerman.

During digestion, fats are broken down into fatty acids and glycerol, which are then absorbed by the intestine; then they must be reassembled with some proteins to be transported into the blood. Because this can take a long time—up to six hours, says Bowerman—the body doesn’t use fats to provide quick energy, and as such, they become a primary way we store calories, as body fat.

The problem with understanding how each macronutrient is digested is that we rarely consume macronutrients in isolation—so how long it actually takes to digest a meal can vary widely (for example, even a high-fat food like peanut butter also contains protein, and even a few carbs). On average, it takes 24-72 hours for a meal to move completely through your digestive tract, says Mary Creel, a registered dietitian with eMeals. Yet that can vary greatly from person to person; digestion is affected by your sleep, stress level, water intake, activity level, gut health, metabolic rate and age, says Creel. A study from the Mayo Clinic even found a huge difference in digestion time among genders: The average transit time through the large intestine was 33 hours for men and 47 hours for women.

Keeping those points in mind, Creel breaks down average digestion time for some common foods:

A bowl of oatmeal: 1-2 hours

A complex carb, oatmeal is a great source of soluble fiber and has a high satiety ranking, as it soaks up water and delays emptying into the stomach. It has a longer digestion time than a refined cereal, like Frosted Flakes.

An apple: 1 hour

This also has a high satiety ranking, but due to the high water content, it might only take an hour to digest. Have a source of protein along with this carb to stay fuller longer.

A slice of pizza: 6-8 hours

Pizza has carbs in the crust, sauce, and vegetable toppings, plus high fat and protein in the cheese, and any meat toppings. The higher fat means it takes longer to digest.

A salad: 1 hour

If you add an oil-based dressing or a protein like cheese or chicken, digestion will take longer. While a salad on its own will digest quickly, the high water and fiber content of lettuce and vegetables helps you feel full.

A hamburger: 24 hours to 3 days

It depends on the size and toppings of the burger, but a meal like this requires a lot of digestive energy to break down the big molecules in protein and fat. Almost hard to believe it can take days to digest, isn’t it?

A slice of cheesecake: 12 hours

You can count on a full 12 hours for this one to break down, due to the high fat content with eggs and cream cheese (aka, don’t plan on hitting the gym a few hours after dessert, or you’ll experience some serious stomach pains.)

How to Speed Up Digestion

Drink at least 8-10 cups of water a day to keep things moving, and regularly consume fruits and vegetables with high water content, like watermelon or salad. Creel also recommends taking a daily probiotic for gut health. One additional tip: Consuming all your calories within a 12-hour time frame—a concept the science community calls “time-restricted feeding”—could also be key to optimum digestive health, according to recent research.

“It’s all about staying in sync with natural rhythms of your body clock,” says Dr. Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, FACSM, chair of the Jenny Craig Science Advisory Board. She advises her clients to follow the 12-12 rule, meaning a 12-hour window of eating followed by a 12-hour window of fasting. (For example, if you finish dinner at 7:00 p.m., you don’t eat again until 7:00 a.m. the next morning.) This method allows your body to optimally digest your meal and convert from glucose metabolism to fat metabolism, using fat as fuel. Ultimately, she says, you should look at eating and digestion as a way to nourish your body and provide it with the fuel it needs.

How Long Different Foods Take to Digest and Why It’s Important to Know

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How long does it take to digest food?

Have you ever wondered what happens to the food you eat? First, it passes through the esophagus. It moves by a wave of muscle contractions that squeeze the food down at about two inches per second. When the food reaches the stomach, it falls into a churning pool of digestive juices. In the stomach, the food is broken down into easily absorbable ingredients: proteins, sugars and fats.
Then greenish brown bile produced in the liver is added to help the breakdown of these fats. By the time the food leaves your stomach and passes into the small intestine, it’s unrecognizable. The walls of our intestines absorb the nutrients into our blood and that’s how we get the energy we all need to live.
How long does this vital process take? It depends on what you’re eating, Dr. Oz, Vice-Chair and Professor of Surgery at Columbia University, says. “A steak dinner can take you two, maybe three days to get out of your intestine. What that means is the way you digest it is basically to rot it in your intestines. On the other hand, if you eat vegetables and fruits, they’re out of your system in less than 12 hours.”
What about chewing gum? Is it true that it takes seven years for it to digest? “No,” Dr. Oz says. However, this little urban legend can be a good way to “get kids to stop chewing gum.”
This content originally appeared on doctoroz.com

How Long Does it Take to Digest Food?

About Eating and Sleeping

You might wonder, how does eating affect sleep? If you chow down too soon before going to bed it can cause heartburn and acid reflux. Indigestion often happens from overeating, eating too fast, or eating foods high in fat. Try to give your body enough time to fully digest your food before sleeping. Eating smaller meals and sticking to foods that digest more quickly can help.

Process of Digestion

The digestion process starts with ingestion. When you take in food, it gets physically broken down into smaller pieces by your teeth. Your salivary glands are triggered and saliva is released to moisten and lubricate the food.

This is where the fun begins. Your swallowing kicks in and moves the food from your mouth into your esophagus. Contractions from a muscle called the peristalsis transports the food down this tube and into another, more familiar muscle, the stomach.

Your stomach churns your food and mixes it with naturally produced bodily chemicals. Gastric juices, acidic fluids, and enzymes breakdown your food at a molecular level and turns it into a creamy paste called chyme.

At the bottom of your stomach, there’s a little gateway called the pyloric sphincter which control the entry of the chyme into your intestine.

At the start of your small intestine, fluids lubricate the chyme and neutralize its acidity. Enzymes further break the chyme down and digest the proteins, fatty acids, and carbohydrates present. These smaller molecules are then able to absorbed by the body into the bloodstream.

After all the useful stuff, like vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, are absorbed from the food, what’s left are watery, indigestible components of the food. Those components are passed into the large intestines.

The large intestines then extract water and electrolytes from the indigestible food matter. And then send it further down the tube. Which sends a response for your body to head to the bathroom.

What to Eat Before Sleep To Protect Your Digestion

You shouldn’t eat heavy meals before bed, but if you need to eat right before you sleep then there are a couple of foods in particular you may want to avoid.

The foods with the longest time to digest are bacon, beef, lamb, whole milk hard cheese, and nuts. These foods take an average of about 4 hours for your body to digest.

The digestion process still occurs even when asleep. Which means our digestive fluids and the acids in our stomach are active. So when you lie down to sleep after eating, those acids and the food press up against the bottom of your esophagus, putting you at risk to feel heartburn, acid reflux, and indigestion.

If you do decide to eat before bed, you would want to eat foods that digest quickly and easily to lower the risk of encountering those issues: such as eggs, seafood, vegetables and fruits.

Important Note About this Infographic

This infographic represents the time it takes various foods to empty from the stomach. This does not represent the full digestion cycle (which often takes between 24–72 hours; here’s more information on that). Like almost anything related to health, these times will vary significantly based on age, gender, the unique capabilities of your digestive tract, and a host of other factors. The data sources for this graphic come from fitness websites, not peer-reviewed scientific journals, so take this with a grain of salt (which will take approximately 13.6 minutes to digest…).

How long does meat sit in your gut?

Asked by: Anonymous

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Nothing ‘sits’ in your gut. Your digestive system is not a recycling centre that carefully separates your food into meat, vegetables, grains and so on and then processes them separately. You chew incoming food into a rough mash; it moves into the stomach for another round of mixing, mashing and marinating, and then travels through the intestine as a fairly homogenous paste.

It’s not a constant speed conveyor belt – the muscles of the intestines can move food forwards and backwards in order to extract all the nutrients and the rate of travel depends on how much indigestible fibre and water there is. But it’s important to realise that meat, vegetables and chewing gum all move – and exit – together.

The widely held myth that meat hangs around longer than other foodstuffs probably stems from the fact a high-protein diet results in a lot of leftover ammonia, which must be removed in the form of urea by the kidneys. This uses extra water and if you don’t drink more to compensate, the dehydrating effect can result in constipation. But in a normal, omnivorous diet, the meat will complete its journey through your digestive system in 12 to 48 hours, along with everything else.

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