Do you ever have to rush to the bathroom after eating? Sometimes it can feel like food “goes right through you.” But does it really?
In short, no.
When you feel the need to relieve yourself right after eating, it’s not your most recent bite that sends you rushing to the toilet.
Digestion time varies from person to person. Your age, sex, and any health conditions you may have also affects digestion.
Generally, it takes about 2 to 5 days from eating for food to pass through your body as stool, estimates the Mayo Clinic.
However, since multiple factors are involved in the digestive process, it’s difficult to give a good estimate of digestion time. Women also tend to digest their food slower than men.
The entire digestive system can be up to 30 feet long in adults — much too long for food to pass right through you. What’s most likely happening to you is something called the gastrocolic reflex.
The gastrocolic reflex is a normal reaction the body has to eating food in varying intensities.
When food hits your stomach, your body releases certain hormones. These hormones tell your colon to contract to move food through your colon and out of your body. This makes room for more food.
The effects of this reflex can be mild, moderate, or severe. They can also vary from person to person.
Some people experience this reflex more frequently and more intensely than others.
Certain foods and digestive disorders may trigger particularly strong or long lasting effects of gastrocolic reflex. These include:
- celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- greasy foods
- food allergies and intolerances
- inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
When these disorders worsen your gastrocolic reflex, you’ll usually experience some other symptoms, like:
Sometimes you might feel an urgent need to poop that isn’t related to your gastrocolic reflex. This could be the case when you have diarrhea.
Usually, diarrhea lasts just a few days. When it lasts for weeks, it could be a sign of an infection or digestive disorder. Common causes of diarrhea include:
- bacteria and parasites, from eating contaminated food or by not properly washing your hands
- medications, such as antibiotics
- food intolerance or allergies
- consuming artificial sweeteners
- after abdominal surgery or gallbladder removal
- digestive disorders
Fecal incontinence can also cause an urgent need to poop. Those with incontinence can’t control their bowel movements. Sometimes stool leaks from the rectum with little to no warning.
Incontinence could range from leaking a bit of stool when passing gas to a complete loss of control over the bowels. Unlike with gastrocolic reflex, a person with incontinence might unexpectedly poop at any time, whether or not they’ve recently eaten.
Some common causes of incontinence include:
- Muscle damage to the rectum. This can happen during childbirth, from chronic constipation, or from some surgeries.
- Damage to the nerves in the rectum. It could either be the nerves that sense stool in your rectum or those that control your anal sphincter. Childbirth, straining during bowel movements, spinal cord injuries, stroke, or certain diseases like diabetes can cause this nerve damage.
- Diarrhea. It’s harder to keep in the rectum than loose stool.
- Damage to the rectal walls. This reduces how much stool can be retained.
- Rectal prolapse. The rectum drops into the anus.
- Rectocele. In females, the rectum sticks out through the vagina.
While it’s not possible to prevent gastrocolic reflex, there are things you can do to make it easier to live with.
First, take note of when you experience the gastrocolic reflex and what you’ve eaten before it happens.
If you notice a pattern between eating certain foods and your gastrocolic reflex becoming stronger, chances are that avoiding those foods will help reduce its intensity.
Some common trigger foods include:
- high fiber foods, like whole grains and vegetables
- greasy and fatty foods, such as fries
Stress is another common trigger for gastrocolic reflex. Managing your stress can help you manage your gastrocolic reflex. Try these 16 ways to relieve stress.
Most people experience the effects of the gastrocolic reflex from time to time.
See your doctor if you experience an ongoing change in your bowel habits, or if you’re constantly running to the toilet after eating. They can figure out the underlying cause and get you the right treatment.