You can alleviate most of these common digestive problems by understanding how your digestive system works and taking steps to ensure all of your food moves smoothly—and at the right pace—through your entire gastrointestinal tract.
Understanding the Digestive Process
Your digestive system breaks food down into nutrients your body can absorb and uses it to power your muscles, bones, joints, organs, blood vessels, and brain.
- Your mouth starts the process by chewing food, lubricating it with saliva, and breaking food down into smaller pieces your body can digest.
- Food passes through your esophagus and lower esophageal sphincter, a valve that lets food into your stomach.
- In your stomach, digestive enzymes and acids further break down food.
- Food (which no longer really resembles food) then passes through another valve called the pyloric valve and enters the small intestine.
- In the small intestine, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients are absorbed by your body. Anything that doesn’t benefit your body (i.e., waste) gets moved through the ileocecal valve into the large intestine, or colon.
- By the time food reaches your colon, it’s pretty much digested. All there is left to do is absorb water and get rid of waste, which happens when stool enters the rectum and is expelled through the anus.
Once you chew and swallow food, all of those actions are involuntarily powered by peristalsis, a powerful and continuous contraction of the muscles along your digestive tract.2
How Long Does it Take to Digest Food?
Digestion is different for everyone, and research suggests there’s a pretty big range. Complete digestion may take just 10 hours or up to 73 hours (more than three days!).3
Here’s how it breaks down, approximately:
- After you eat, it takes six to eight hours for food to pass through your small intestine and stomach.
- Once food passes through your stomach and enters your colon, it can take about 36 hours (but up to 59 hours)3 to process.
Factors that Affect Digestion Time
The duration of your total digestion time depends on many factors, including:
- Digestive health and the presence of any digestive disorders
- Emotional state (stress and anxiety)
- Physical activity level
- What kind of food you ate
- How much food you ate
- Sleep quality
9 Ways to Naturally Speed Up Digestion
If you’ve been feeling some pain, bloating, or any kind of discomfort in your stomach, the following tips may help you speed up your digestion naturally.
If there were a miracle drug, exercise would be it. Truly, physical activity provides us with so many benefits, from happiness to strength to low disease risk.
In addition to those well-known benefits of exercise, moving your body can also help move food through your digestive system and not by an insignificant amount: One study showed that regular cycling and jogging can reduce gut transit time by 14.6 hours and 17.2 hours, respectively.4 That’s no small difference!
Additionally, people with existing constipation may benefit from a simple workout routine. Some research has found that just 30 minutes of walking and 11 minutes of at-home exercise each day can significantly improve symptoms.5
Plus, inactivity has been linked to reduced gastrointestinal motility6 (the ability of your body to move things through your digestive tract) and reduced transit time.7 If you needed another reason to start exercising regularly, improved digestion is it.
Eat More Fiber
You probably already know that fiber improves digestive health. In terms of digestion time specifically, fiber helps in two ways: Soluble fiber absorbs water and makes your stool easier to pass, while insoluble fiber pushes food through your digestive tract and keeps things moving.8 Studies have linked a high-fiber diet to a reduced risk of inflammatory bowel conditions and digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).9
If you don’t get a lot of fiber right now, start increasing your fiber intake very slowly. Adding too much fiber to your diet at once can have the opposite effect of what you want, causing bloating, gas, and constipation.10
Minimize Fast Food
Healthy fats, such as those found in avocados, almonds, chia seeds, olive oil, and fish, provide essential health benefits to your body. Other types of fats, such as those found in fast food and fried potato chips, may slow digestion.
Additionally, eating mostly fast food or high-fat prepared foods may simply not leave enough room in your diet for foods that benefit digestion, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Drink More Water
Low fluid intake has been linked to constipation in both children13 and adults.14
While hydration needs vary among individuals, experts recommend consuming 3.7 liters of fluid for men and 2.7 liters of fluid for women.15
This sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that this recommendation includes fluid you get from foods and non-water beverages. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables can help you meet the recommended fluid intake.
Also, there’s no solid evidence that shows caffeine to be dehydrating,16 especially in individuals who drink caffeinated beverages daily,17 Plus, caffeine may actually help speed things along in your digestive tract.18
Scientists have hypothesized for decades that sleep habits could have an effect on digestion and bowel movements.19 Years later, that relationship stands. Disturbed sleep seems to negatively affect next-day digestion,20 with a particularly significant effect on abdominal pain21 and distension (bloating).
Poor sleep has also been linked to gastrointestinal diseases, including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease (PUD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).21
The Gastrointestinal Society, an arm of the Canadian Center for Intestinal Research, recommends high-quality sleep as a lifestyle-based treatment for poor digestion and digestive disorders.22
Keep Stress Levels Low
People often experience upset stomachs, “butterflies,” or gut-wrenching pain before big events, such as starting an important exam, proposing to a significant other, or interviewing for a big job. This type of stress-induced tummy ache typically subsides immediately or shortly after the important event ends. Chronic stress, however, can have a long-term impact on your digestive health.23
The connection between stress and slow digestion doesn’t end there: When you’re stressed, your body adopts a state of heightened alert. Your fight-or-flight mechanism is always on. This can cause your blood pressure to rise, cortisol levels to increase, muscles to tense up, and heart to beat faster.25
While all those mechanisms are on the up, your body slams the brakes on mechanisms that it feels aren’t as important in the moment—like digestion. When your brain thinks you’re running from a bear, it doesn’t care what’s going on in your stomach. This can lead to symptoms like alterations in your appetite (more hungry or less hungry), bloating, constipation, and stomach aches.23
If you’re feeling particularly anxious at mealtime, you may want to try a stress-reducing tactic before you eat. One study showed that people who ate while anxious experienced increased symptoms of bloating and fullness.26
Stress may also exacerbate existing digestive conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).27
Everyone knows what it feels like to eat way too much food in one sitting—it’s not pleasant, to say the least. Eating too much overloads your digestive system and bogs the process down, which can cause digestion to slow.
If you tend to overeat at every meal, you may think that slow digestion is your “normal,” but you can enjoy speedy digestion (and avoid uncomfortable fullness) by eating smaller meals.
For example, if you currently eat three large meals each day and deal with slow, uncomfortable digestion, try eating five or six small meals. Or, try throwing some satiating snacks, like trail mix or lean jerky bars, into your day and see if it helps you keep your meals smaller.
Chew Your Food
Do you tend to scarf food down without really chewing it? If so, your lightning speed eating habits may be contributing to slow and uncomfortable digestion.
The digestive process starts in your mouth, where salivary enzymes begin to break down food.28 Your teeth help by crushing tough outer surfaces and skins on food, mashing each mouthful into a pulp that your digestive enzymes can easily permeate.
Chewing your food thoroughly helps your body absorb more nutrients from certain foods29 and may prevent you from overeating,30 which can reduce the likelihood of indigestion.31
Take Probiotic Supplements
Adding probiotics to your supplement regime may help you digest food faster. Probiotics are helpful bacteria that live all over and within our body; the probiotics in your gut (known as the microbiome), heavily influence digestive health.32
While it’s ideal to get probiotics through food, such as yogurt and sauerkraut, or to help existing probiotics flourish by eating healthy foods like whole grains, probiotics may still help when taken as a supplement. Studies show that probiotics can relieve bloating, gas, and pain in people with IBS,33 as well as decrease transit time.34
Probiotic supplements are available in many forms and from many brands, so it’s important to research before buying them. Verywell Fit’s list of the best probiotics includes the top supplements rated by a dietitian.