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Gum and the 7 Year Myth

You may have been told that if you swallow gum it will stay in your body for 7 years. It’s not entirely clear where this idea comes from. The origins of this truism are likely lost to history and not even Google wants to hazard a guess.

But it’s not quite true. Chewing gum will not stay in your intestine for 7 years. While gum is not metabolized, broken down, or absorbed like most food, it doesn’t sit in your colon for the better part of a decade.

Intuitively, the idea is believable. Gum is sticky and hard to scrape off the bottom of school desks. So the idea that it could become lodged into some corner of your digestive tract is not entirely implausible. However, it is worth remembering that we actually eat a lot of things that we cannot digest.

As food passes from our mouths, down our esophagus, and through our stomachs to the small intestine, it is broken down and metabolized by specific enzymes (most of which are produced by the pancreas). Most carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are broken down into their constituent sugars, fatty acids, and amino acids before being taken up by the transporters in the cells of the small intestine. Everything left over passes through the large intestine where bacteria have at it and break it down further before it is ultimately expelled as stool.

However, some things simply can’t be broken down because neither we, nor the bacteria in our colon, have the enzymes to metabolize it. Fiber is a prime example. Insoluble dietary fiber passes undigested through the digestive tract and draws water into the bowels through osmosis. This softens the stool and can ease constipation.

Other foods like nuts, seeds, beans and corn also go undigested and simply pass through you within a matter of hours. The average transit time through your gastrointestinal tract is probably a little over 24 hours, although it can vary considerably from person to person. If you are especially curious about the time it takes food to pass through your intestines, you can always eat some corn or flax seeds for dinner and then be especially vigilant when going to the bathroom. But despite the fair bit of variation in how long it takes food to move through you, nothing will normally sit in your intestine for several years.

Undigested food is essentially harmless largely because it is not broken down and absorbed into your bloodstream. Seeds can pose problems for people with diverticulosis because they can become lodged in the small outpouchings of the intestinal wall and lead to an infection. But outside these specific situations, most undigested food passes through you in a benign fashion.

It is very unlikely that chewing gum could harm you in any way, even if it were swallowed. Chewing gum has been around since largely the dawn of human civilization. The ancient Greeks chewed a gum resin from the mastic tree and the ancient Mayans chewed chicle, a substance derived from the sapodilla tree. Through human history there have been few reports of negative health consequences.

That being said, chewing gum can cause health problems though it is often related to the flavorings and sweeteners rather than the gum itself. For example, the sorbitol used in sugarless gum can cause cramps, bloating and diarrhea in some. There are also rare reports of chewing gum causing intestinal obstruction. It takes quite a bit of chewing gum to cause an intestinal blockage, however if unsuspecting children regularly and consistently swallow their chewing gum it can rarely happen.

The widespread fear that chewing gum will stew in your intestines for years is unfounded. Gum, like most other undigested foods, will pass through you within 24-48 hours. The only exception would be if large amounts of swallowed gum congealed together and formed a blockage. While this is very rare, there is no real advantage to swallowing your gum, and all things being equal you might as well just throw it away when finished with it. So it is probably a good idea to warn children not to swallow their chewing gum. And for good measure, you should probably also warn them about what to expect the next time they eat corn.


@DrLabos

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