Digestive Transit - what's supposed to be happening in there?
Let's walk your last meal through to its final destination.
So first, your mom was right when she told you to chew your food. Chewing releases the first of various digestive enzymes. The enzymes released in the mouth will travel with the food, breaking down food and aiding digestion. Not chewing properly sends the food unaccompanied by these important enzymes. Your digestion hasn't even started and already you're in trouble.
Once you swallow, your food travels down into the blender, also known as your stomach. It splashes down into an acid environment and meets up with more enzymes. You really would not want to see what has happened to that slice of pizza you ate - it has been broken down into an unrecognizable paste.
The broken down food now sets off for your small intestine. The small intestine is smaller in diameter than the large intestine, but it is very, very long. About twenty feet of long. Your food meanders through the twists and turns of the small intestine, meeting even more enzymes. All the while, it is extracting nutrients your body can use.
Once most of what can be extracted has been, the food moves to the large intestine, otherwise known as the colon. Mother nature is brilliant in design, so all that liquid that was so helpful in the small intestine is now removed by the colon. This is good, if it did not happen we would live in a near constant state of diarrhea.
And finally, well we all know what 'finally' is - time to flush the toilet.
The Digestive Tract
Why does the time it takes to digest food matter so much?
The time it takes for food to travel through your digestive system requires delicate balance. This once was not the case. As hunter/gatherers, we did not need to mull over food choices and lifestyles. Food was not processed, not coated in insecticides or treated with antibiotics and we were exercising. Exercising all day long. Our digestive enzymes had not been compromised, the food we took in was natural and chemical-free and constantly moving our bodies was assisting in moving food on its journey.
But here we are today and what a price we have paid for convenience. Maybe we ate highly processed white bread for breakfast. Then we're sitting at a desk all day, and have a microwaved, highly processed food for lunch. Then we get home and eat a piece of antibiotic laden chicken. Hardly surprising our digestive system has gone on strike.
Once transit time has left the optimal zone, one of three things will happen. The person will experience chronic constipation, or chronic diarrhea or a combination of both. It is common for people to experience a combination of constipation and diarrhea and remain under the impression that they merely suffer from occasional bouts of diarrhea. They are not cognizant of the periods of constipation. As the founder of thesadstomach.com and author of Beat the Bloat - Saying Goodbye to Stomach Bloating Forever, I have helped many people tie these two issues together to resolve stomach bloating.
What is the right speed for digestive transit time?
The entire process of digestion is estimated to be anywhere from twenty-four to seventy-two hours. But, that is an estimate of averages, or "normals" and averages are no longer a reasonable way to assess anything. This nation has become so riddled with 'conditions' that measuring against what exists is no longer measuring against what is ideal.
For best digestive health, transit time should be between fifteen and twenty-four hours. Long enough for the small intestine to extract nutrients, but not so long that bad bacteria and decomposing food are lingering and causing problems.
What causes slow digestive transit time?
Sedentary lifestyle - When you move everything inside of you is moving too. Sitting all day can prompt the digestive tract to stagnate.
Medications - All sorts of medications can cause constipation, usually by pulling too much fluid from the colon. Narcotic pain relievers are notorious for causing constipation.
Dehydration - Not drinking enough fluid during the day prevents the digestive system from drawing in fluid to help move waste along.
Lack of fiber - lack of bulk in the digestive tract can turn the digestive process sluggish.
Small meals - Many people like to graze throughout the day, rather than eat a full meal at one sitting. A side effect of this style of eating can be constipation. The digestive tract never has enough to work with and gets sluggish. Grazers should make sure they are getting enough fiber to avoid this pitfall.
How do I measure my own digestive transit time?
Measure your digestive transit time using charcoal tablets bought at the pharmacy. Note the time you took two tablets and watch for very dark, blackish stool. The number of hours that passed between taking the tablets and noting the dark stool is your digestive transit time for that day. I say "that day" because transit times can vary based on what foods you have eaten, medications you are on, hydration status, exercise length and intensity and mental stress. Do this test on what you consider a normal day to get a baseline transit time number.
Some people recommend doing this test with corn or beets. I do not. While you will be able to see undigested corn and you will be able to see red stools from beets, these tests pose their own problems. Scientists know that different types of food travel at different speeds through the digestive tract, so when corn arrives in the toilet may not be a good indicator of overall transit time. And as for the beets test - blood in stool can be such a serious condition that I would hesitate to recommend anything that even looks like it. While it would not be likely, I would hate to think of somebody looking at bloody stool and thinking it was the beets they ate to check transit time. Since there are other ways to assess transit time, I see no need for risking a possible confusion.
The interesting thing about testing your own digestive transit time is you may find out you suffer from a chronic, low grade state of constipation. Just because you have a bowel movement everyday doesn't mean you are not constipated. You need to see how long a known item takes from mouth to toilet.
What should I do if my transit time is too slow?
Exercise - The very act of moving around will prompt your digestive system to wake up and get to work.
Magnesium - Magnesium supplements will draw water into the colon, speeding the evacuation process. Buy a high quality brand and blend and do not use magnesium if your digestive problems already tend to too much diarrhea.
Ginger - While ginger is a known remedy for upset stomach, it is less well known for its ability to regulate digestive transit time. Ginger can be used by utilizing the root in recipes, as ginger tea and as ginger supplements.
Psyllium husk - psyllium husk adds necessary fiber. The digestive system requires bulk to get it going and keep it moving. Psyllium husk is also a demulcent, and as such will soothe the digestive tract while sweeping it clean.
More by Deb Maselli
Check out more articles by Deb Maselli, including "Are your heart palpitations, an irritated vagus nerve and your stomach bloating connected?"
© 2013 Deb Maselli
Deb Maselli on February 25, 2015:
Hi Tim - I really don't know - best to see what the doctor says. Good luck and feel better!
Tim on February 25, 2015:
I have had an h pylori infection I believe and I'm going to the doctor to get it checked out. Lately, I've been having pretty bad reflux also. The last day or two I've been having trouble swallowing a little bit and slightly painful swallowing. Could this be due the reflux?