One second you're chomping away, the next you're performing the Heimlich maneuver on yourself, struggling to keep a piece of gum from slipping its way down the abyss that is your throat. It's a skirmish we've all lost at some point in our gum-chewing days. But maybe that's not as bad a loss as we thought.
Despite what mom always said, gum doesn't take weeks, months, or even (seven?) years to make its way through your system. It just takes a day or two, according to Rachel C. Vreeman, M.D., co-author of the appropriately named Don't Swallow Your Gum! Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health.
You can thank an expertly evolved digestive system for that one. When you swallow something (edible or not) it takes the same path: down your esophagus and into your stomach, where a mix of acids and enzymes go to work on breaking it down. From there, the partially digested blob is shuttled into your intestines, where—with a little help from your liver and pancreas—it's broken down further so your body can absorb any of its vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients.
And right there in the intestines is where mom's warnings have their hint of truth: Your body can only break down three of gum's four components. Sure, gum's flavorings, sweeteners, and softeners are no match for the human digestive tract at work, but the gum base is pretty indigestible stuff. A mixture of elastomers, resins, fats, emulsifiers, and waxes, it's made to withstand your saliva's digestive enzymes, and it also withstands your gut's.
Fortunately the body knows how to deal with indigestible foods. In fact, it thrives on it. For instance, fiber, which is lauded for lowering cholesterol levels and uncovering abs from extra layers of insulation, is indigestible. So when your body comes across something that can't be used such as fiber (or that pesky gum base) it sends it along to the colon—and out it comes with everything else, right on schedule, Vreeman says.
Like most health myths, however, this one warrants some fine print: If you eat enough gum at one time, it is possible to block up your bowels.
Perhaps the best cautionary tale against swallowing your gum is this review in the journal Pediatrics, which describes three children suffering from intestinal pain, constipation, and other nasty symptoms who discovered they had masses of gum lodged in their guts. All swallowed gum on the regular—one four-year-old boy putting away five to seven pieces a day.
Do this as an adult, and an obstructed bowel is probably the least of your problems.
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