All digestive tracts are similar, but the normal time for food digestion isn't always the same for everyone. Digestion is a complex process that takes place in your gut and, from eating to excretion, lasts around 50 hours on average.
Read more: Home Remedies for Digestive System Cleansing
Role of the Digestive System
In a nutshell, digestion is the process in which your body breaks down the nutrients from food you eat into smaller parts to be used for energy, growth and repair. For instance, proteins break into amino acids, fats break into fatty acids and glycerol and carbohydrates break into simple sugars. Once foods are broken down into smaller parts, your body is able to absorb and move nutrients to where they are needed.
As food moves through your GI tract, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, your digestive organs break food up into smaller parts using motion, such as chewing, squeezing and mixing, and digestive juices, such as stomach acid, bile and enzymes.
The large intestine absorbs water and the waste products leftover from digestion, including parts of food that are still too large, becomes stool. Your nerves and hormones help control these digestive processes. Signals flow within your GI tract and back and forth to your brain.
Read more: How to Speed up the Digestion of Food
How Long Does Digestion Take?
Digestion time varies between individuals, especially between men and women. It takes about six to eight hours for food to pass through your stomach and small intestine after you eat.
Although there is normal variability among people's digestive tracts, there are also factors that influence the time it takes to digest food. According to VIVO Pathophysiology at Colorado State University, the time required for material to move through the digestive tube can be significantly affected by the composition of the meal, as well as psychological stress and reproductive status.
In a 1980s Mayo Clinic study that's still referenced widely, researchers measured digestion time in 21 healthy people. They found the total transit time, from eating to excretion, averaged 53 hours. The average transit time through just the large intestine was 40 hours with a significant difference between men and women: 33 hours for men and 47 hours for women.
Tips for Better Digestion
To keep your gut healthy and your food moving smoothly through your digestive system, try these tips:
- Eat at least seven servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Whether they are canned, fresh or frozen, fruits and vegetables are high in fiber and many disease-fighting chemicals.
- Choose whole grains. Whole grains are rich in fiber, which helps move food through your digestive system more easily. When looking at the nutrition labels on packages, make sure "whole grains" is one of the first ingredients and that there are at least 3 grams of dietary fiber per serving for the best benefit.
- Limit red meat and processed foods. Meat takes longer for your digestive system to break down. Instead, choose poultry or fish, or replace meat with dried beans for more fiber.
- Add probiotics to your diet. Probiotics contain healthy and beneficial bacteria that help fight bad bacteria in your digestive tract. You can find good sources of probiotics in Greek yogurt, kefir, raw apple cider vinegar or supplements.
Is This an Emergency?
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease: "Your Digestive System & How it Works"
- Mayo Clinic: "How Long Does it Take to Digest Food — From the Time You Eat It to the Time You Excrete It?"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Acid Reflux (GER & GERD) in Adults"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Constipation"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Digestive Tract Health"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)"
- Khan Academy: "Enzymes and the Active Site"
- NCBI Bookshelf: "Relationships Among the Brain, the Digestive System, and Eating Behavior: Workshop Summary: Interaction Between the Brain and the Digestive System"
- MedlinePlus: "Bile"
- Fisher Titus Medical Center: "7 Tips to Improve Your Digestive Health"