Person standing with hole where stomach should be

The Gastrocolic Reflex: “Food Goes Right Through Me!”

Have you ever eaten a meal and almost right after you’ve eaten it you are rushing to the bathroom to have a bowel movement? You’ve probably used the phrase, food goes right through me! Many patients who live with Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis have experienced this phenomenon.

But does food really go right through you?

Let’s think about it: There are about 25 feet of intestine in the digestive tract. If you ate a slice of pizza and stood up to go to the bathroom 5 minutes later would it really be the pizza that had reached the end of your digestive system? Did it just go right through you? The pizza would have had to travel through your esophagus, stomach, and 25 feet of intestine all in 5 minutes which would be some sort of record transit time. Even though you just ate a meal and had to use the bathroom shortly after, the food did not travel all the way through your digestive system in that short amount of time.

So what is actually happening?

If you are eating a meal and very shortly afterward you need to use the bathroom the cause is usually the gastrocolic reflex. The gastrocolic reflex is a reflex that stimulates contractions in the colon that can lead to using the bathroom shortly after eating a meal. Basically the stomach and the colon are communicating1 – once the food you have just eaten reaches the stomach, the stomach sends a message to the colon to make room because more food is coming. The colon being the polite guy he is, starts contracting which pushes it’s contents further down and this is why you have a bowel movement shortly after you have eaten the meal. It’s not the food that you just ate that is coming out of you, it’s waste from food that you had eaten earlier that was already further down in the digestive tract.

Stomach (gastro) is talking to the colon (colic) about contractions after eating

The gastrocolic reflex involves the stomach (gastro) and the colon (colic).

Research has shown that some patients with IBS have an over-reactive gastrocolic reflex with high pressure contractions in response to meals.2 Simply eating or drinking can trigger this exaggerated reflex resulting in pain, cramping, diarrhea or constipation. Several patients with IBD have coexistent symptoms of IBS3 so this exaggerated gastrocolic reflex can occur in patients who have Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis.

Greasy foods can trigger reflex

Usually large meals or foods that contain unhealthy fats can also increase the pressure of contractions of the gastrocolic reflex.4 This can explain why you feel like you need to use the bathroom right after you eat fried or greasy foods.

So there you have it! The reason why you feel like you have to use the bathroom shortly after eating is because of the gastrocolic reflex. Needing to use the bathroom right after eating a meal can make a patient assume that food travels extremely fast through their system – that food goes right through them.

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