Chewing prepares food in the mouth to make it easier to swallow. You put food in your mouth and close your lips to keep it in. The tongue moves the food around in the mouth. Saliva moistens the food and your teeth break it down until it forms a soft, moist ball. This is called a bolus and is ready to swallow.
Swallowing happens in three stages. These are shown in the diagrams below. We have used numbers to show what happens at each stage. The food bolus is shown as green in the diagrams. Eating difficulties can be caused by problems at one or more of these stages.
Mouth stage of swallowing
- When the food bolus (shown in green in the diagram) is ready to be swallowed, the tip of the tongue squeezes against the roof of the mouth. This moves the food to the back of the throat (pharynx).
- The soft palate moves up, closing the gap between the nose and mouth. This stops food from moving into the nose.
Throat (pharyngeal) stage of swallowing
- As food moves into the throat, the muscles in the base of the tongue and throat (pharynx) squeeze together. This moves the bolus of food down.
- Your voice box (the larynx) lifts in your throat and a flap of tissue called the epiglottis moves to close the airway and stop food going into the airways and lungs. The vocal cords close and the voice box moves upwards to further protect the airway. The gullet (oesophagus) opens.
Gullet (oesophageal) stage of swallowing
- Muscles in the gullet squeeze and relax, pushing food down towards the stomach.