The digestive tract is one of the most important systems in the human body. It is responsible for transferring nutrients from the food you eat to your cells. Due to its unique role, it has a great impact on other organ systems as well. A compromised ability to digest food can cause a wide range of serious health problems, and it can even be lethal.
The digestive process is made up of five phases. It starts while the food is still in your mouth and ends in the large intestine. On its way through your body, the food you eat also passes through the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine.
But how long does food stay in your stomach? Keep reading for the answer to that, and many other questions related to the digestive system.
The entire digestive process, from the time you eat to the time the food leaves your body, can take anywhere between 24 and 72 hours. The exact time depends on many factors, like the type of food and the amount you ate. But it’s also influenced by your gender, age, possible digestive problems, and your metabolism rate.
For example, red meat and fish take the longest to digest, with the process lasting up to two full days. On the other hand, fruits and vegetables can run through your digestive system in less than a day. Junk foods are the fastest, taking mere hours to speed through your digestive system and get out.
There are five phases of food digestion and they happen in different parts of the digestive system. The major parts of the digestive system are the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. Here’s a word or two on each major part.
The first stage of digestion happens in your mouth as you eat. While you chew, your mouth releases saliva that contains enzymes in charge of the initial breakdown of the food you eat. The enzymes help turn the food into a soft and mushy mass you can swallow easily.
This is a very short phase, usually lasting no more than 20-30 seconds per bite. In the case of soft food, it might take even less time.
When you swallow food, it enters the esophagus, and it doesn’t stay there long. Nothing major happens in this phase, as it is a transitional one. At the bottom of the esophagus, there is a muscle, the esophageal sphincter, which acts as the gate between the esophagus and the stomach.
The stomach phase is significantly longer than the previous two combined, but how long does food stay in your stomach, exactly? Experts at Colorado State University have determined, based on a series of studies and tests, that the stomach phase takes between 4 and 5 hours on average.
The acids in your stomach break the food down even further, preparing it for the final stages. The mixture of the partly digested food and stomach acids is called chyme.
After the chyme leaves the stomach, it enters the small intestine. There, your liver and pancreas take the stage. The pancreatic juices are in charge of breaking down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, while the liver bile deals with fats.
After this, water, vitamins, and other useful nutrients are transported directly to the bloodstream via the small intestine walls. All that’s left undigested after this phase goes over to the large intestine.
The large intestine is the last checkpoint before the food is ready to leave your body. This is also the longest phase of the entire process. It is not unusual for the food to sit in your large intestine for an entire day or even two.
Following an extensive study, scientists at Mayo Clinic have found that the average duration of this phase is 40 hours. More precisely, 47 hours for women and 33 hours for men.
When this phase ends, all that’s left undigested moves to your rectum and forms into solid waste – commonly named stool. It sits there until your next bowel movement.
Possible Complications and Problems
Problems and complications with the digestive system can affect other parts of the body, and they can cause pain and discomfort. Here are some common conditions and diseases.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
According to a study published in 2010, irritable bowel syndrome affects between 3 and 20 percents of the population of the United States. Common symptoms include diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, cramps, gas, and bloating. Women are more likely to contract it than men.
People with celiac disease are extremely sensitive to gluten, as their bodies are unable to digest it. This condition can seriously compromise one’s overall health and quality of life. People suffering from celiac disease have to follow a strict gluten-free diet.
Acid reflux is one of the most common digestive system problems. It happens when a weakened esophageal sphincter starts letting acid from the stomach into the esophagus. Heartburn is the main symptom of acid reflux.
People with lactose intolerance can’t consume milk dairy products. That’s because their bodies lack the enzyme that breaks down the sugar found in milk. Similarly to celiac disease, the main symptoms of lactose intolerance include nausea, diarrhea, gas, bloating, and cramps.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease has two main types – ulcerative colitis and Chron’s disease. The former commonly affects the large intestine, while the latter can hit any part of the digestive system. Chron’s disease most commonly targets the very end of the small intestine.
Doctors don’t yet know what causes inflammatory bowel disease. However, genetics and a compromised immune system are the main suspects.
How to Improve Digestion
There are many things you can do to boost your digestive system. Here are some of them.
- Introduce more veggies and fruits into your diet. They pass through your digestive system quickly and help keep it in shape.
- Regular exercise helps keep the entire body healthy, including the bowels.
- As you consume more greens, consider cutting back on junk food and meat.
- Make sure you get enough sleep. Your entire body, including the digestive tract, will thank you for it.
Food can take anywhere between 24 and 72 hours to move through your entire digestive system. The process consists of five phases, with digestion starting in your mouth and ending in the large intestine. While it might take you less than a minute to chew and swallow a bite, the large intestine can take up to two days to finish the process.
So, how long does food stay in your stomach? On average, it stays there for a period of 3 to 5 hours. Meat and fish take the longest to pass through, while junk food takes the least, leaving you hungry quickly after the meal.