- In general, it will take four to six hours for your stomach to digest food.
- However, it can take between 2 to 5 days for food to move through the intestines and exit the body.
- You can’t speed up digestion, but you can improve it by eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
There is no overestimating the importance of digestion: It helps us turn food into the water and nutrients we need to power and maintain our body’s functions.
While the overall process of digestion is similar person to person, factors such as gender, age, and medical conditions can change how quickly food is digested.
Here’s what you need to know about how digestion works, how long it takes, and when you may need to speed up the process.
How long does it take to digest food?
This is the amount of time it takes for the food to go from your mouth to your colon, also known as the large intestine. However, it can take anywhere between two to five days for food to move through the intestines and leave the body entirely.
There are a few factors that can influence digestion:
- Gender. Women tend to digest food slower than men, and certain digestive conditions are also more common in women. Irritable bowel syndrome occurs two to six times more often in women, and inflammatory bowel disease is twice as likely.
- Age. Digestion can naturally slow as people get older, says Gluckman. This can also increase the risk of acid reflux and constipation in older adults.
- The food you ate. Simple carbohydrates, like white bread, digest faster than food with complex sugars and high fat or protein, like peas and whole grains, says Gluckman.
- Pregnancy. Pregnant people produce higher levels of progesterone, which can slow the digestive system. As the uterus grows, it can also apply pressure to or block parts of the digestive system, like your colon, slowing the digestion process down even more.
Understanding the digestion process
The goal of digestion is to provide the body with the nutrients it needs to function. Much of this absorption occurs in the small and large intestines, says Marc K. Taormina, MD, a gastroenterologist at Midwest GI Health.
Including the small and large intestines, the digestive process stretches throughout much of the body and includes these organs:
- Mouth. The entry point of your digestive system uses the teeth and saliva to break down food into a smaller, more easily digestible form.
- Esophagus. The muscles contract and push the food down towards the stomach. At the bottom of it, a muscle called the esophageal sphincter relaxes to let food into the stomach before contracting again to prevent acid from going into the esophagus.
- Stomach. A combination of acid and enzymes further breaks down food in the stomach.
- Small Intestine. At 22 feet long, the small intestine is over three times the length of a person’s body. Here, enzymes from the pancreas and bile from the liver break down food again. Water is digested into the small intestine’s walls, and nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream. Food can stay in the small intestine for two to six hours.
- Large Intestine. Waste leaves the small intestine and enters the five-foot-long large intestine. Waste enters as a mostly liquid but, over the course of its 36-hour journey through the large intestine, it becomes more solid. Once the colon fills with stool, it empties into the rectum.
- Rectum. The rectum is an eight-inch chamber that holds stool and alerts the brain that it’s time to use the bathroom.
Can you digest food faster?
You can’t do much to speed up your digestion, nor should you try to. Sped-up digestion may stop you from absorbing all of your food’s nutrients, says Taormina. It’s important to remember that digestion speed and metabolism are two different things. Speeding up your metabolism to burn calories is a separate process.
The only time you should try to speed up your digestion is under the doctor’s advisement and guidance. This may happen if you have irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel syndrome, says Gluckman.
How to improve digestion
While you can’t speed up your digestion, you can ensure your digestive tract is working smoothly by eating a healthy diet. Here are five tips to improve your digestion:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables, especially apples, raspberries, and broccoli, which are good sources of fiber — a nutrient essential for gut health and known to ease constipation.
- Choose whole grains, like whole-grain bread, oatmeal, brown rice, and quinoa are also good sources of fiber.
- Drink more water, as dehydration can exacerbate constipation. Women should aim to drink at least 2.7 liters a day and men 3.3 liters.
- Reduce your intake of added sugars, like those found in cookies and pancakes, which can harm the healthy gut bacteria essential for digestion.
- Try probiotics, which are foods or products containing colonies of healthy bacteria naturally found in our gut. Probiotic-rich foods include kombucha, kefir, and yogurt.
It takes food about four to six hours to digest through the body and into the large intestine, where it then sits for 36 hours as it makes its way to the rectum.
Factors such as age, gender, and pregnancy can decrease this speed. However, there is no reason for trying to speed up digestion unless instructed by a doctor.
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