A discussion about delayed transit times may bring to mind your dreary commute to the workplace every day, but that is not the only transit that matters. The transit of food that is taking place inside your body may be of much greater significance and consequence to you and your overall health. What transit, you ask? Well, that would be the transit of food through your digestive system.
We all know that good digestion is important, but we know this in a vague sort of way, and we do not give enough importance to understanding what exactly constitutes good digestion. A bowel movement once a day, and we automatically assume that all is good with the gut and happily move on. That could be dangerously far from the truth. The frequency and regularity of bowel movement are just some of the many determinants of how well your digestive system is doing its job. And it is imperative for you to pay attention to this for the following reasons:
- Poor digestion can lead to emotional problems, mood swings, and even anxiety and depression, as per a study by the John Hopkins Centre for Neurogastroenterology.
- The same study also says that poor digestion can place you at a higher risk of cognitive ailments.
- This study published in Science Daily shows how serotonin, a crucial brain transmitter, is produced primarily (90% of it) in the digestive tract, so imbalances here impair the serotonin production rather drastically.
- Poor functioning of the digestive system can lead to ailments like type 2 diabetes.
Apart from these rarely known consequences of poor digestion, we all know that bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, gas, stomach aches, weight gain, and lowered immunity all can arise if the digestive system is on strike. But what significance does the time taken to digest food bear on overall health? Does it even matter how long the food is in our body before it is removed in the form of fecal matter? The answer is a resounding yes.
Before we get on to this discussion, you need to understand why digestion takes time at all.
The Various Players in the Process of Digestion
Digestion is one of the most crucial activities that our bodies carry out on a recurring basis. It is not a simple process either, and the complexity is enhanced thanks to the many organs that are part of the digestive tract that need to carry out various functions using the food you ingest. When everything is working in order, you enjoy the benefit of good health fueled by the nutritious food you eat.
The process of digestion starts in your mouth – the first crucial part of our monogastric digestive system. The chewing action prepares the food for the digestive action by breaking it down into manageable pieces. Saliva mixes with the food and kick starts the digestion process. When you swallow the food, it enters the esophagus that carries it further into your body to your stomach.
In the stomach, the glands make the stomach acid that breaks down the food further, aided by enzymes. The muscle action of the stomach mixes the food well with digestive juices. Meanwhile, the pancreas is working to create more digestive enzymes, and these are sent to the small intestine in readiness for the food. The enzymes produced by the pancreas work to digest the carbs, proteins, and fats. In the liver, more enzymes are produced that work on fats and some vitamins, and these too end up in the small intestine.
The small intestine makes its own digestive juice, and it combines with the liver’s bile and pancreas’ digestive juice to make a product that effectively breaks down carbs, proteins, and fats. Some enzymes are produced in the small intestine as well. Water is moved in from your blood so that digestion can be aided. Once the food passes through the many meters of the small intestine, it then moves into the large intestine (colon), where the water is moved back into the bloodstream, the final break down of nutrients happens, and the rest of it is turned into waste matter or stools.
As you can see, the process is complex because the whole of the digestive system is trying hard to ensure that the nutrients in the food you consume are not wasted away and that it is all absorbed efficiently by your body before the waste is ejected from the colon.
The digestive process does not just involve these organs – it also encompasses the many bacteria, nervous system, hormones, and blood and has it all working in conjunction with the digestive organs to move food through our body in the most efficient, effective manner. The human body’s other systems – immune, endocrine, and nervous – all work in tandem with the digestive system as well. So when your digestive system is on the fritz, you are affecting your whole body in an alarming way, although the impact may not be evident at once.
The Significance of the Time Taken
The time taken for the food to travel through the digestive system, starting from the minute you eat the food to the moment you expel it from your body, is called the gut transit time. The time taken for the food to travel through your colon alone is called the colon transit time. The gut transit time is very, very significant when you are talking about your gut health and the functioning of your digestive system.
As you can see, the digestive process is quite a complex one, with many processes involved. Food has to pass through various stages of breakdown where it can be worked upon by enzymes so that all of the nutrients are efficiently removed from it and utilized by your body. If any of these processes are not taking place as it should, you stand to lose out on the nutrition that you can derive from your food.
It stands to reason that to ensure all of these actions can be performed on the food, your digestive system needs some time. The optimum time required for digestion is believed to be about six to eight hours – that is, food should ideally take this much time to move from your mouth to your colon. Here, it stays for longer before it is expelled in the form of stools. Your gut transit time is the time taken for food to travel from your mouth right until it is expelled. The ideal gut transit time can be anywhere between 12 and 48 hours.
The time taken by food for this journey in your body may be different from the time taken for someone else even if you eat the same food. The condition of your digestive system, how well it can work, heavily influences this. But this is not all. Even the kind of food you eat impacts the gut transit time dramatically. A meal full of fiber, veggies, and fruits will travel faster through your digestive system.
Why Does Gut Transit Time Matter?
Gut transit time tells you how well your digestive system is able to siphon off all the nutrients from the food you eat. If the food passes through too quickly, there just isn’t enough time for the optimum absorption of nutrients. If it passes too slowly, too much water is drawn out from the waste food, and you suffer constipation or other associated issues like hemorrhoids. A poorly functioning digestive system can become the root cause of many problems, as we already saw earlier. To pinpoint the problem further, it is when the food is not being passed through and processed by the digestive tract efficiently, at the right pace, that the trouble starts.
Impact on Gut Bacteria
According to this article in Science Daily, the longer the time taken for food to get through the digestive system, the more the number of harmful byproducts produced along the way. The bacteria in the large intestine fuel themselves from the carbs in the food. When they consume carbs, they also produce some by-products that strengthen the intestinal wall. But when the food travels too slowly through the digestive system, the bacteria run out of carbs to consume and switch to protein instead. This also changes the by-products released into ammonia and sulphur compounds. These are not beneficial at all, and they may cause damage to the bowel.
Damage to the Intestinal Layer
When the system is working fine, the bacteria protect the intestinal layer by restoring the mucous layer that keeps it safe. However, when the bacteria lack adequate fuel, they start to erode the mucus layer, thus making the intestinal wall more vulnerable to mutations. This puts you at great risk of developing colorectal cancer.
The gut transit time also plays a key role in determining how easily you can pass bowel movements. When things are normal and your food is passing through at an ideal rate, your bowel movements are ideal as well, and you can avoid problems like constipation that prevent you from clearing out your bowels completely. Lack of fiber-rich foods and greens in your diet, even inadequate water in your diet, could lead to constipation, and this, in turn, can lead to painful issues, like anal fissures if you have to force out the stools with great pressure.
Toxins Recirculating in the System
When the food is not passing through properly within the right amount of time, the waste in your body and the toxins could be recirculating inside your body over and over again. When the toxins get into your bloodstream, you experience several symptoms like headaches, fatigue, gas, skin problems, bloating, muscle aches, and so on. Remember that the longer the food remains inside your body, in the colon, the more the putrefaction is going to impact your overall health. It is essential for the body to eject waste material before it starts harming your system, and this is possible only when the gut transit time remains close to ideal levels. If you are not having at least one bowel movement in a day, it could mean that the waste is recirculating in your body.
Inefficient Absorption of Nutrients
The food should take adequate time to pass through your system; otherwise, your organs do not have enough time to absorb all the nutrition. This could result in deficiencies cropping up in time. If you are passing out the food too soon, say in four to five hours, and your stools are loose too, you could be heading towards some very painful issues like cramps, electrolyte imbalance, anemia. It is best to seek medical help if this is the situation you are facing.
A simple way to keep track of your gut health is and how your digestive system is faring is to keep track of your bowel movements and the nature of your stools. If you have a hard time passing stools and they have the appearance of little, hard pellets, then your food is not passing through as fast as it should. You need to speed it up by taking the right kind of diet to make the work easier on your digestive system. It helps to know how fast your gut is able to process the food and eliminate it. To find out, you can do a simple test on your own. Take a half-cup of raw beet in your diet. You should ideally see the red coloration in your stools anywhere between 12 to 24 hours after you eat this. Any longer than this and your gut transit time may be too slow, meaning food is staying inside your body for too long. Any sooner than this, and it is too fast, meaning your body isn’t getting enough time to squeeze out all the nutrients from the food you are eating. Either way, you need to correct this quickly to enjoy good health!