Bowel movements, while considered taboo in polite conversation, are actually one of the best indicators of your overall health. Gabriel Neal, MD, family medicine doctor and clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, explains what your personal time in the restroom could say about your health and why you should pay more attention before you flush.
Why are bowel movements important?
Since the day you were born, you had to eat, breathe and excrete waste in order to survive. These are the only things in life that are as guaranteed as death and taxes, and what we put into our bodies greatly impacts our bodies’ natural waste management system.
“When we eat and digest food, our body takes in nutrition, and it needs to expel from the body the leftovers that aren’t properly absorbed,” Neal said. “This is what keeps the body functioning properly and efficiently.”
Our bowel movements are typically made up of organic matter, good bacteria and bile—a chemical from the liver that helps digest fat—that our body no longer needs and thus, must be removed.
What are normal bowel movements?
The good news about your bowel movements is that if it feels comfortable, then everything is likely going well.
“Normal bowel movements are relatively soft but dense,” Neal said. “They should be any shade of brown or green.” Typically, the food you eat takes three days from consumption to become waste. If the stool is on the greener side, it may have taken a shorter time to digest, but it’s generally no cause for concern.
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Although people may see slight changes in the frequency of their bowel movements or even a change in consistency, if everything feels well, then it’s likely just fine. Think about it—maybe you ate something that didn’t agree with your stomach, or perhaps you were a little dehydrated. These and many other routine factors can change the color, size, frequency and consistency your stool.
Bathroom habits: How to know if something isn’t quite right
Many people will experience problems during bowel movements. However, one of the common problems people experience happens before they even make it to the restroom.
“If you’re having bowel movements three times per week or less, then that is the common definition of constipation,” Neal said. “On the other side, more than six times per day for adults is too much.”
If your digestive clock suddenly goes from three times a week to three times a day, then that could be a sign of underlying conditions. “Don’t ignore a significant change in bowel movement patterns,” Neal said. “In terms of frequency or their form.”
If your bowel movements leave your housemates running for cover, then that can be a sign of food not digesting properly. Undigested food reaches the colon and starts a fermentation process that turns sugar into gas—which can produce foul-smelling stool.
A healthy digestive system will break down food in your small intestine and likely not have as much food left to reach the colon to begin the fermentation process. Talk to your health care provider if something seems off. You may have a food intolerance or sensitivity that needs to be addressed.
There are also many different pathogens, both viral and bacterial, in the digestive tract that could lead to stool discoloration, diarrhea or blood in the stool; and the color of the blood can help your provider determine where the infection might be.
“If an infection is in the lower intestines or colon, then the blood in your stool is going to be red,” Neal said. “If you find black blood, then the blood has oxidized and is from higher up in your digestive tract, such as the stomach or upper intestines.”
People suffering from gallbladder disease can sometimes have white stools, so if you ever notice white bowel movements, contact your health care provider.
Discussing your bathroom habits with your health care provider can be an awkward topic, but it may be necessary. If there are concerns about going to the bathroom, Neal recommends addressing them head on.
“If bowel movements hurt, are frequently strained or just look or feel different, then these problems should be addressed,” Neal said. “Your provider can discuss changes that need to be made in your nutritional habit or even recommend some medication to help.”
Quick tips: Improving bowel movements
If your bowel movements have been more strenuous or frequent than usual, then your solution may be as simple as a glass of water or some added fiber.
“Hydration is very important to having more regular and healthy bowel movements,” Neal said. “Fiber absorbs water from the lining of your colon and makes your stool easier to pass.”
A well-balanced diet is the best way to keep your bathroom visits less stressful. Someone whose diet consists of mostly carbohydrates, starches and protein can be missing out on fiber-rich vegetables—such as broccoli, peas or Brussels sprouts—that can improve their digestive system.
Insoluble fibers, such as those found in vegetables, beans and legumes, are not broken down by the body, so it passes through your system and softens your stool.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends 14 grams of fiber for every 1000 calories consumed. So someone who is consuming 2000 calories per day should be eating about 28 grams of fiber per day.
“Bowel movements are natural and will happen throughout your entire life,” Neal said. “It’s important to have an open discussion with your physician to make sure your digestive system is working most efficiently.”
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