8 Ways to Naturally Digest Food Faster

Digest Your Food Faster by Following These Healthy Tips

Woman holding her stomach

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

 

Without the digestive system, you wouldn’t be able to eat or absorb any nutrients from food. Sometimes, though, the digestive system can seem like your worst enemy. You’ve likely spent some time cursing your stomach for gurgling and cramping, shaking your fist at your bowels for moving too slow (or too fast), or groaning with discomfort from bloating and gas. 

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

The digestive system breaks food down into nutrients the body can absorb and uses it to power muscles, bones, joints, organs, blood vessels, and the brain. The nutrients you get from food are critical to proper body functioning; they help regulate every single mechanism that happens in your body. From hormone production to heartbeats, food is the start of it all. 

Understanding your digestive system starts with knowing which organs are involved. Here’s how the digestive system works in a nutshell: 

  1. Your mouth starts the process by chewing food, lubricating it with saliva, and breaking it down into smaller pieces your body can digest. 
  2. Food passes through your esophagus and lower esophageal sphincter, a valve that lets food into your stomach. 
  3. In your stomach, digestive enzymes and acids further break down the food. 
  4. Food (which no longer really resembles food) then passes through another valve called the pyloric valve and enters the small intestine. 
  5. 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. 
  6. By the time food reaches your colon, it’s pretty much digested. At this stage, gut bacteria further process waste, producing gas and creating important substances such as vitamin B12 and vitamin K. 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 your food, the remaining actions in the digestive process are involuntarily powered by peristalsis, a powerful and continuous contraction of the muscles along your digestive tract. 

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!).

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 enters your colon, it can take about 36 hours (but up to 59 hours) to process.

Factors Affecting Digestion Time

The duration of total digestion time depends on many factors, including:

  • Genetics
  • Age
  • Digestive health and the presence of any digestive disorders
  • Emotional state (stress and anxiety)
  • Metabolism
  • Physical activity level
  • What kind of food you ate
  • How much food you ate
  • Hydration
  • Sleep quality

8 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.

Exercise Regularly

If there were a miracle drug, exercise would be it. Truly, physical activity provides so many benefits, from stress relief to strength to reduced disease risk.

In addition to those well-known benefits of exercise, moving your body can also help move food through your digestive system. And this effect is significant: One study showed that regular cycling and jogging can reduce gut transit time by 14.6 hours and 17.2 hours, respectively. 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.

Plus, inactivity has been linked to reduced gastrointestinal motility (the ability of your body to move things through your digestive tract) and reduced transit time. 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. Studies have linked a high-fiber diet to a reduced risk of inflammatory bowel conditions and digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

If you don’t get a lot of fiber right now, start increasing your fiber intake gradually. Adding too much fiber to your diet at once can have the opposite effect of what you want, causing bloating, gas, and constipation.

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. 

Scientists think these foods can cause constipation because they contain lots of fat, which takes longer to digest, and don’t contain much, if any, fiber. High salt content may also reduce the water content of your stool, making it more difficult to pass.

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 children and adults. While hydration needs vary among individuals, experts recommend consuming 3.7 liters (125 ounces, or about 15.5 cups) of fluid daily for men and 2.7 liters (91 ounces, or about 11 cups) for women.

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, especially in individuals who drink caffeinated beverages daily. Plus, caffeine may actually help speed things along in your digestive tract.

Prioritize Sleep

Scientists have hypothesized for decades that sleep habits could have an effect on digestion and bowel movements. Years later, that relationship stands. Disturbed sleep seems to negatively affect next-day digestion, with a particularly significant effect on abdominal pain 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), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). 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.

Keep Stress Levels Low

People often experience upset stomachs, “butterflies,” or gut-wrenching pain before big events, such as 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.

Your gut and brain communicate on a two-way street, and when stress rises, miscommunications can happen. In fact, your brain and gut share so much communication that some experts have dubbed the gut a “second brain.”

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.

While all those mechanisms are speeding 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 means chronic stress can lead to symptoms like alterations in your appetite (more hungry or less hungry), bloating, constipation, and stomach aches.

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. Stress can also exacerbate existing digestive conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Avoid Overeating

Everyone knows what it feels like to eat way too much food in one sitting—it’s not pleasant. 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. 

This isn’t to say you need to eat less overall—you should certainly eat enough to support your body and lifestyle—but you might consider eating more frequent, 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. 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 foods and may prevent you from overeating, which can reduce the likelihood of indigestion.

A Word From Verywell

Slow digestion and constipation are common problems, but simple lifestyle changes like the ones described above can help regulate your digestion. It might seem like a lot at first, but you can start small by choosing just one or two to begin.

For example, start by taking a daily 20-minute walk to see if that helps. Then, you can practice mindful chewing or increase your water intake. These small habits add up to big changes and you'll be taking regular bathroom breaks in no time.

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