Digestive health is the cornerstone of a healthy life: when you eat the right foods your body is able to absorb the nutrients and properly dispose of the rest through digestion and bile.
When this doesn't happen, you can experience bloat and constipation. More than 63 million people suffer from chronic constipation, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Gastrointestinal (GI) issues like this are not only a sign of poor digestive health, they can hinder your workouts, training season and overall performance too.
This is why it's important to know how your digestive system works, even if you don't suffer from GI problems. When you understand what a healthy body looks like on the inside and how to stay regular, you'll be one step closer to performing your best.
Having digestive issues? 8 Foods to Relieve Constipation in Athletes
How the Digestive Tract Works
The human GI tract is the organ system responsible for food digestion. Spanning about 30 feet, the GI tract includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach and both the small and large intestines.
Bacteria play an important role in digestion, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Nerves, hormones, blood, and the organs of the digestive system—liver, pancreas, and gallbladder—work with bacteria to complete the complex task of digesting the foods and liquids we eat everyday.
While the digestion process isn't identical for every person, the general digestion time is 6 to 8 hours. In that time, food passes through the GI tract and mixes with digestive juices, which breaks down large molecules of food into smaller ones, according to the NIH.
The body then absorbs these smaller molecules through the walls of the small intestines and into the bloodstream, which delivers them to the rest of the body. Waste products of digestion pass through the large intestine and out the body as a solid matter called stool, according to the NIH.
It takes significantly longer for the leftover undigested food residue to be removed.
"Elimination of undigested food residue through the large intestine usually begins after a total of 24 hours; complete elimination from the body may take several days," says Michael Picco, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic.
How to Handle Back Up
If having a bowel movement is a problem for you, check your fiber intake. Think of fiber as a two-sided sponge—one part scrubbing out your intestines and the other soaking up water so waste can slide right through. To stay regular, amp up your produce intake. While the recommended daily amount is 25 grams, most of us only consume 7 grams.
Eat right and perform better with nutrition tips and advice.