Understanding How You Digest Food and Why It Matters

Most people don’t think about what it takes for their body to digest food until a problem arises. But good digestion is paramount for wellness. The more you understand this essential biological process, the better you can care for your body.

Good digestion requires a delicate balance of enzymes, acids, transporters, and countless other elements that ensure the nutrients you consume are put to work in your body. A glitch in the system can lead to acid reflux, constipation, nutrient deficiency, and even depression.

On the flip side, a healthy digestive system keeps you feeling strong, energetic, and balanced.

Here’s a quick primer on what your body does to digest food, where problems arise, and how you can support good digestion.

The Process to Digest Food

First, let’s take a look at what happens inside your body when you consume food. The process of digestion consists of three major stages.

Stage 1: Intake

Your olfactory sensors jumpstart digestion. When you smell food, you begin to salivate. Your saliva contains amylase, the enzyme that breaks down sugars. When you consume food, amylase—combined with your chewing—initiates the process of breaking down your food.

Not only does chewing your food make particles smaller and easier to swallow, but it also mixes your meal with mucus and saliva. This lubricates your food for an easier journey down the esophagus.

Stage 2: Process

Next, your food reaches your stomach. The stomach is already prepared to digest food in its gastric acid. Just as your olfactory sensors alerted your mouth to salivate, it also alerted your parietal cells to produce gastric acid.

So what exactly happens when your stomach digests food?

Your stomach essentially makes a digestive soup. It closes both the esophageal sphincter and the pyloric sphincter to prevent food from exiting the stomach. Then, the muscles of your stomach walls flex, churning your food and gastric fluids, shaking everything up like a martini. 

Gastric juices relax coiled protein molecules so your digestive enzymes can break those molecules apart. Your gastric acid also protects you by killing any harmful microorganisms that may have hitched a ride on the food you ingested.

Then, the food travels from your stomach to the small intestine. Your pancreas produces additional digestive enzymes to break starches, fats, peptides, and sugars into fatty acids, amino acids, and single sugars. These nutrients are then absorbed into your bloodstream through the epithelial tissue. 

The liver plays its own role, creating bile to digest fat and separate fat from your recently digested food.

Stage 3: Eliminate

After the body has absorbed all the nutrients it needs, your digested food moves into the large intestine. It is here that your body takes any additional water it needs from your food through the walls of the large intestine. Everything that’s left is waste that is then excreted.

How Long Should It Take to Digest Food?

The entire process of digestion typically takes about 1 ½ - 6 hours.

Seem like a wide window?

It is. That’s because the time it takes your body to digest food depends largely on what type of food it is. For example, red meat takes an especially long time to break down, averaging a digestion time of about 4-5 hours. 

So then how are you supposed to know if you’re digesting food at a healthy rate?

One trick I suggest to my clients is to add milled flaxseed to about 4 ounces of water. You drink the mixture, then wait to see the flaxseed show up in your stool. This shows you your motility—the time it takes for your body to move through the three phases of digestion. You should see the flaxseed in less than 24 hours. If that flaxseed takes more than 24 hours to show up, your body may be taking longer than it should to digest food.

What Factors May Make It Difficult to Digest Food?

There are countless factors that could impact your ability to digest food. Some of the most common digestive problems include:

  • Magnesium deficiency. Your muscles require magnesium in order to function, and that includes internal muscles like those that surround your esophagus. In order to move food down to the stomach, the muscles of the esophagus create a peristaltic wave function. (Think of a snake swallowing its meal.) If magnesium is low, muscular functions like these falter and digestion falters with it.
  • Dumping Syndrome. This is common in individuals who have had a gastric bypass or a gastric sleeve. If you have this condition, your body will not even try to digest red meat. It goes in and comes right back out.
  • Fecal impaction. This occurs when a mass of stool becomes impacted in your rectum or colon. It is potentially very serious and must be treated right away. Regular hydration can help prevent impaction. Keep an eye on your stools. If you have hard stools, that’s a signal that you don’t have enough water to property eliminate digested food and the toxins it contains.
  • Slow digestion. In addition to the flaxseed trick I mentioned above, your bowel movements also tell you a lot about your body’s ability to digest food. You should have one to two bowel movements every single day. If you don’t experience a movement for days at a time, you should talk to your doctor.
  • Indigestion and acid reflux. This is caused when your body doesn’t produce enough gastric acid to digest food. The most common cause of gastric acid deficiency is stress. That could be chemical stress, physical stress, or even emotional stress. Under these circumstances, your body won’t produce the acid needed for healthy digestion.

What Can You Do to Aid Digestion?

Fortunately, there are things you can do to support a healthy digestive system and address minor digestive issues. Consider trying the following:

  • Get plenty of fiber. While fiber is not digestible, it plays an essential role in digestion. High fiber foods like fruits and vegetables keep the descending colon clean and helps your food pass through the large intestine.
  • Eat your last meal before 8:30. Your body begins to secrete melatonin at around 9:30 p.m. This calms your central nervous system and slows digestion.
  • Eat proteins first. Let your body digest food that takes more time first, then consume the simple sugars that don’t require a lot of enzyme to digest.
  • Start your day with a glass of water, ideally water with lemon. This simple habit gets your digestive system started for the day.
  • But don’t drink a lot of water right before or after your meals. You can take small sips as you eat to help get the food down. But save most of your water consumption for between meals.
  • Eat a diet containing the cofactors your body needs to digest food. These include iodine, zinc, and niacin. Also be sure to get plenty of HCL, potassium chloride, and sodium chloride to make gastric acid.
  • Combat acid reflux with apple cider vinegar. Apple cider vinegar cleans out the bile ducts and thins bile. 

Everything you do to support digestion and a healthy stomach ultimately supports your overall wellness, from physical health to mental health.

If you’re struggling with digestive issues, let us help. At PH² Nutrition, we consider your health history, unique metabolism, and several other factors to set up a dietary system that’s right for you. Reach out to set up a free fifteen-minute consultation.