Published: April 15, 2012
Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to talk to thousands of patients about many aspects of their health. This is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work. I find most people interesting to talk to.
Most people have a reasonably adequate knowledge about their health and how their bodies work. However, there are exceptions.
I recall a conversation with a patient several years ago that involved her young son.
She told me that “Billy” had swallowed a piece of gum the day before and she was worried. I told her not to worry, that it would just pass through like everything else.
She looked at me with uncertainty.
“I always heard that it takes seven years for gum to pass through and that he might get clogged up,” she told me.
I explained that a single piece of gum should make the trip from beginning to end in a couple of days, and unless he ate a large amount of gum at once he was not likely to develop a blockage.
“Are you sure?” she continued.
It was apparent that the idea that gum took seven years to complete gut transit was pretty well entrenched in her mind.
I don’t know where she had first heard the swallowed gum myth. I have since learned that others believe that as well. I have no idea how that myth got started.
As I considered the impact of this belief I couldn’t help but imagine Billy anxiously watching the toilet for years in worried anticipation, hoping everything came out all right. I envisioned him desperately trying to recall what color gum he had been chewing.
In the interest of relieving anxiety I decided to use my voice in this column to set the record straight:
Parents, please inform your kids there is no need to conduct bathroom “exit polls” if they swallow a piece of gum. I have confirmed with digestive system experts that within 24 to 72 hours, the gum will complete its passage, completely intact, impervious to the effects of the digestive process. The seven-year, swallowed-gum myth is untrue.
Everybody performs a little differently in the digestion and elimination department. Some people have a fairly rapid gut transit time while others can be sluggish.
For people experiencing digestive problems there are several sophisticated medical tests that can be done to determine digestive transit time.
As you might expect, these tests are somewhat expensive.
If you are really curious about your own timing, one experiment you can conduct involves eating a few beets.
The beet juice will alter the color of your stool. Note the time that you eat the beets and the time that you observe the red-stained stool.
This test is imprecise at best, but it does provide an estimate of gut transit time. To avoid eating beets, you might ask your pharmacist for charcoal tablets that work as well.
There are many factors that can have an effect on the bowel transit time, and many successful approaches to improve it.
The type of food that you eat can alter the transit time.
Dietary fiber plays a very important role in regulating transit time. Whether your food goes through your digestive tract too slow or too fast, eating adequate dietary fiber will likely improve the process.
Drinking adequate water can improve the process as well. If you think you may be too sluggish, try drinking more water throughout the day.
Spinal function seems to be important to regular digestion.
Over the years as I have provided chiropractic care for patients, many have made unsolicited comments to me that their digestion has improved considerably simply as a result of receiving spinal care.
Many patients have made the comment that they have become more “regular” after beginning chiropractic spinal manipulation.
Adding regular exercise to your routine will probably improve your digestion. Your body needs the regular pumping of the muscles to accomplish many of the automated processes, including digestion.
And try not to swallow your gum.
That reminds me. It’s been about seven years since that visit with Billy’s mom. I think I’ll check and see how he’s doing.