Rapid digestion! What's the hurry?

Dear Alice,

For years now I've been digesting my meals within an hour or less. I am able to see whole food in my bowel movements of meals that I have just eaten. Any idea as to what's wrong?

Dear Reader,

Efficiency is great when you need to get chores out of the way quickly, but when it comes to digestion, slow and steady is a better way to go. Your speedy digestion process, and what seems to be chronic diarrhea, may be caused by a number of different health issues, so your best bet is to visit health care provider who can run some tests and pinpoint the source of your problem.

The digestion process begins in your mouth where saliva is the first to break down chemicals in your sandwich or other food. Next, the stomach acts like a blender turning your lunch into a sandwich smoothie so the food is easier to digest. The stomach slowly feeds the liquid mixture into the "small" intestine, a 22-foot long tube that absorbs most of the nutrients. The liver sorts through these nutrients, taking out toxins and waste. On the way out, any leftovers pass through the large intestine. At the end of the intestine, the colon soaks up water and the last bits of nutrients from the food waste. Everyone's body is a little different, but digestion averages 24 to 72 hours from start to finish.

There are several explanations for speedy digestion and chronic diarrhea including:

  • Celiac disease — a digestive condition caused by an intolerance to a wheat protein called gluten. People with celiac disease may have grayish stools, abdominal cramps, general weakness, and a number of other symptoms. The only treatment is to avoid all foods containing gluten.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome — also known as IBS or spastic colon, this condition can bring on diarrhea or constipation, gas, abdominal discomfort, and stools with mucus. A variety of treatments can relieve the IBS symptoms including avoiding gassy foods, fiber supplements, medication, and counseling to reduce stress that may trigger digestive troubles.   
  • Colitis an inflammation of the colon that can cause frequent watery bowel movements, abdominal pain or bloating, and nausea. Some cases of colitis improve on their on or with small diet changes, others require medication or surgery.
  • Infections, parasites, and other bugs — a number of infections may lead to frequent diarrhea and related symptoms.

The best way to find out what's causing your speedy stools is to visit a health care provider. During your visit, try to give the provider a detailed account of your eating patterns and resulting runs. Don't worry about the gross-out factor; health care professionals can stomach it! Next, the provider may suggest some tests to help form a diagnosis and recommend the best treatment for you.

Hope your system slows down soon!

Last updated Mar 23, 2015
Originally published Feb 12, 2010

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