How Long Does It Take Food To Digest?

The time may depend on your age and the foods you eat.

What happens to food after you swallow it? The timing of food digestion depends on a few factors like the type of food you eat or if you have certain health conditions. However, in general, the digestive process takes a few days. Here's what you need to know about what happens during digestion and more on how long it usually takes to digest your food.

What Happens During Digestion?

The body's digestive system as a whole is made up of many complex and crucial moving parts—hence the reason why it may take so long for the body to digest food.

The digestive system is made up of two major parts, per a Current Research in Food Science review published in April 2021: the digestive tract and accessory organs. The digestive tract includes the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, and intestines; the accessory organs are considered to be "the teeth, tongue, salivary glands, liver, gall bladder, and pancreas," the review authors noted.

Essentially, as food makes its way from one end of the digestive tract to the other, the different components of the digestive system perform various functions in order to process the food.

The first step to digesting food is putting it in your mouth and chewing it—but your teeth don't do all of the work here. During this process, your salivary glands also moisten your food, making it easier for whatever you're eating to pass through your esophagus when you swallow, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The esophagus is a tube that carries food and liquids from your mouth to the stomach, per the National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus resource.

After the food makes its way down the esophagus, it reaches the lower esophageal sphincter—a muscle that relaxes to allow the food to pass into the stomach. The stomach muscles then mix your food with digestive juices. Digestive enzymes—proteins responsible for breaking down food and helping with digestion, per Johns Hopkins Medicine—and stomach acid produced in the stomach lining help the food break down further.

Next, the food passes through your small and large intestines. In the small intestine, the digested nutrients and water are absorbed into the bloodstream, and in the large intestine, liquid waste is transformed into stool, which is moved into the rectum. The rectum, which is at the lower end of the large intestine, stores the stool until it's pushed out during a bowel movement.

How Long Does the Entire Digestive Process Usually Take?

The time it takes for you to digest food—from the time you put it in your mouth to the time you excrete it—depends on many factors. This process is sometimes referred to as your bowel transit time, per MedlinePlus. "All in all, it takes anywhere from two to five days for people to digest food," Rabia De Latour, MD, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone, told Health. "It varies in everyone," Dr. De Latour added.

Lots of things can factor into the time differences between people, but for starters, the type of food you're eating plays a role. High-fiber foods can speed up your digestion, Dr. De Latour said. She added that simpler foods (think: non-processed foods) are easier to digest because it's more difficult for your body to break down complex chemicals in processed foods.

"Complex sugars, high-fat [foods], and high protein foods will take longer," Christine Lee, MD, a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic, told Health. Also worth noting: Your digestive system slows down as you age, Dr. De Latour said.

Further, there are also some medications—like blood pressure medications, antacids, and narcotics—that can cause issues with the timing of digestion (e.g., constipation), per Johns Hopkins Medicine.

What Health Conditions Can Impact How Long It Takes To Digest Food?

Gastroparesis is a disorder that slows or stops the movement from your stomach to your small intestine, per the NIDDK. It may make you feel full too soon or too long after eating a meal and can cause nausea and vomiting. You may experience other digestive symptoms as well, such as:

  • Bloating
  • Pain in the upper abdomen
  • Heartburn

The most common cause of gastroparesis is diabetes. Other conditions that can cause gastroparesis include hypothyroidism (when your body doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone), some nervous system disorders, or viral infections in the stomach, per the NIDDK.

Dumping syndrome occurs when the digestive process is too fast. It comes in two types, each with unique signs. Early dumping syndrome symptoms start within 30 minutes of eating and include, per the NIDDK:

Late dumping syndrome symptoms start between one to three hours after eating and include:

Dumping syndrome most commonly occurs after stomach surgeries. People with recently developed diabetes and certain pancreatic disorders or ulcers may develop it as well, per the NIDDK.

What Can Help With Better Digestion?

The good news is that many digestive issues can be managed with lifestyle changes. Johns Hopkins Medicine indicates that the following ways can help you support your digestive system:

  • Eating the right foods (e.g., fiber-rich foods)
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Being physically active
  • Managing stress or other issues such as anxiety or depression

Medications are also available to help with any digestive issues you may have. For example, in the case of gastroparesis, a person may be prescribed medications that aid stomach muscle functioning or reduce pain, according to the NIDDK.

Ultimately, if you're worried something's off, a healthcare professional can refer you to a gastroenterologist. The gastroenterologist would be able to complete a full workup to help you get to the bottom of what's causing symptoms in your digestive system.

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