science of us

How to Digest a Gigantic Meal

Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

The holiday season is upon us, and maybe you’re wondering, “How am I going to digest all this wonderful food?” My colleague Emilia Petrarca, for instance, says that she and her family traditionally lie on the floor after finishing their Thanksgiving dinner. (Petrarca notes that back when her parents were dating, however, and her mother was first exposed to this tradition, “she thought it was really weird and definitely wrong.”) Is anyone else doing this?

Complete digestion — from when the food is consumed to when it leaves the body as waste — normally takes about 53 hours, but it depends on the person and the food and can range from 24 to 72 hours. It takes longer for women than it does for men (47 versus 33 hours in the large intestine), and protein-rich food takes longer than fiber-rich food does. Also, for women in the luteal phase (the second half) of their menstrual cycle, large-intestine digestion can take twice as long as it does otherwise.

Here are some suggestions I like for enhancing this digestive arc.


A digestif is technically any alcoholic drink served after a meal in the name of digestion (e.g., cognac, grappa, sherry, vermouth, sambuca, Jägermeister). Bitter herbal-liqueur digestifs (amaros) contain specifically carminative (i.e., anti-gas) herbs, such as basil, cardamon, fennel, and licorice. Fernet-Branca is a popular brand. Do they work? Sure — anything that tastes bitter is believed to encourage the body to get things moving. (Bitters in sparkling or flat water can also be useful.)

Lying down (or not)

It’s probably best not to lie down immediately after eating (unless it’s a beloved and time-honored family tradition, in which case it’s totally fine). When you do lie down, though (ideally at least three hours after a meal), consider lying on your left side, since that position promotes better digestion by protecting against heartburn and allowing gravity to more efficiently pull waste down through the colon. This is due to the asymmetry of our internal organs.

Taking a walk

There is a general consensus on the value of going for a walk, ideally two hours after finishing a large meal, despite how generally cold and unpleasant it always seems. I wonder if a holiday tradition could be the “group silent walk,” where everyone just enjoys everyone else’s company — in silence. I feel like that could be an asset.


Ginger in all forms (including tea) is always helpful, digestion-wise: it encourages saliva flow, stimulates stomach contractions, and promotes gastric emptying.

Water (room temperature, maybe with peppermint)

Green tea and plain old (room temperature) water are also good, in particular for preventing constipation. (Cold and ice water may slow things down a bit, according to Ayurvedic medicine.) Regardless, you might consider adding some peppermint oil to whatever you’re drinking, as it’s also considered a digestive aid, specifically for irritable bowel syndrome.


I like these two yoga exercises that I keep seeing mentioned in digestive contexts:

The vajrasana pose (or, the diamond/thunderbolt pose — essentially, kneeling on the ground and sitting upright), which can be done as soon as 5 to 15 minutes after a meal, and which is thought to aid digestion by stimulating the kidneys, liver, and pancreas. As one video guide notes, “It is the only pose that can be done on a full stomach.” Following my Friendsgiving meal this past weekend, I can confirm that this pose is pleasant and feels good. Here’s another video on how to do it.

Also, this hand-yoga position: the pushan mudra (“the gesture of digestion”), which is thought to be associated with the stomach, liver, and gallbladder. According to one nice guide, there are a couple variations on the pushan mudra you may want to try, depending on what you’re trying to prevent (one is for acid reflux and burping, and another is for gas, bloating, and constipation). The gesture can even be done while a meal is happening, and throughout the day, whenever you feel like it. (You could also combine it with the vajrasana.) Here’s a quick video guide, too.

The bhadrasana (“butterfly”) pose is also believed to be good for digestion. It could be useful to cycle through all three of these poses. Or if not strictly useful, then at least a fun conversation starter (or ender).

Well, good luck.

How to Digest a Gigantic Meal