Everything You Should Know About Your Stomach

It rumbles, it gurgles, and sometimes it aches. Solve your stomach's mysteries with our happy belly how-tos.

stomach

Ready to learn way more about your stomach than you ever thought you would know? Then let's get started.

How Your Stomach Works

1. Hear that growl? It's the sound of your stomach muscles moving around an empty chamber, signaling it's time to eat. The mere sight or smell of food releases acids and enzymes in the stomach, prepping you for digestion.

2. As food travels down the esophagus, a ringlike gateway muscle called the esophageal sphincter opens, allowing the eats to enter the stomach.

3. Layers of stomach muscle relax to make room for food, then churn like a cement truck until the meal is the consistency of a smoothie. Acids and enzymes keep working to break it down further.

4. The stomach muscles then push this food mixture — called chyme — downward, where it escapes in small batches through a second sphincter to the small intestine.

The Vitals

2-3: The number of seconds it takes for food to reach your stomach after you swallow a bite.

2: How many hours it typically takes for food to completely exit the stomach after a meal.

4: The max number of liters of food/drink most adult stomachs can hold (a little more than a gallon of milk), but most of us feel overly full after eating less than half that amount.

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This Is Why You Feel So Full

After chewed-up food hits the stomach, receptors in the organ send out a memo to the intestines to give them a heads-up about what's coming down the pike. That's because the digestive enzymes in the intestines work at different rates — for instance, the ones that break down fats chug along more slowly than those that work on simple carbs. If the stomach senses a fatty meal, it will empty itself gradually so that the digestive system doesn't get overloaded, which is why a cheeseburger still feels like a lump in your stomach hours later. The natural sugars found in beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, milk, and cheese can also be tough to digest for some people, so the stomach may hold on to these foods longer, too. If something gives you trouble, start by cutting your portion size. That could help solve the bloated feeling.

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Nervous Flutters

It's your turn to make a speech at a wedding, but a cloud of butterflies are dancing around your gut. What you're really feeling is blood leaving your digestive system — it's part of that flight-or-fight response that occurs when adrenaline spikes, sending blood to your extremities in case you need to, say, outrun a bear or a mugger. Yes, it's a bit of an overreaction when all you need to do is take the mic.

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Belly Bugs, Decoded

Stomach acids kill most viruses, but some can sneak by, triggering an upset stomach. To get rid of that toxin, your nervous system may prompt you to vomit: Your brain tells the esophagus to relax, your stomach muscles contract, and the diaphragm pushes against the stomach to force food up and out. Gross, but embrace it. If you don't throw up, the toxin may travel downtown and trigger diarrhea. Um, no thanks.

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Mixed Hunger Messages

As you nosh, the "I'm hungry" hormone ghrelin calms down, and the stomach (along with other fatty tissues) secretes another hormone, called leptin, which signals to the brain that you're full. One small problem: We don't always listen to it, particularly when we've eaten lots of fat, sugar, or salt. Those light up the reward circuits in our brain, overriding our response to leptin, which is why after two fudge cookies you might feel the urge to polish off a whole stack. Experts suggest you put your fork (or the cookie) down between bites; tapping the brakes gives your brain a chance to catch up with the "I'm full" messages your digestive hormones are pumping out.

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Myth #1: Your Stomach Can Shrink If You Eat Less

Have you heard if you eat less, you'll be able to shrink your stomach? Think again. Unless you have surgery, the size of the organ doesn't change once you're fully grown.

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Myth #2: Gum Stays in Your Stomach for Years If You Swallow It

We've all heard the old wives' tale that you can't digest chewing gum, so it stays in your tummy for years if you swallow it. It's true that your body can't fully digest gum, but it won't clog up your stomach. The wad stays somewhat intact, but still moves through your digestive system — exiting just the way food does.

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Myth #3: Eating Super Spicy Food Dishes Can Give You an Ulcer

Foods with a kick may aggravate an existing ulcer, but research hasn't shown that they'll cause one. A bacteria called H. pylori is most often to blame, along with the overuse of anti-­inflammatory meds such as ibuprofen.

This story originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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