You’ve been taught not to bring it up in polite conversation and certainly never to discuss it at the dinner table, but understanding (and, yes, talking about) your bathroom habits is an important first step in maintaining healthy bowels.
Though your bowels help rid your body of waste, there’s so much more to them than that. They are an important part of your immune system, and they help your body regulate fluids and produce vitamins. Your colon, in particular, houses trillions of bacteria that affect metabolism and digestion. So keeping quiet about any bowel trouble you experience may have more repercussions than you ever expected. It can not only prevent you from enjoying life to the fullest, but even put you at risk for further complications or disease, like colorectal cancer.
What’s a Normal Bowel Movement?
Ideally, you should have one or two bowel movements every day. If you go less often than that, your diet may be low in fiber.
Feces should generally be smooth, soft and well-formed with a chocolate brown hue. Bowel movements should look more like a bananas than thin pencils, and while they sometimes smell, the odor shouldn’t been strongly unpleasant. You should not see any blood or mucus in the toilet or on your toilet paper after wiping, and you shouldn’t feel pain when you go.
Stools may float or sink, but ones that float tend to be indicative of healthy bowels. A high-fiber diet can make feces float, which is a good thing, but so can fat in the stool—good if you’re trying to lose weight, but not if it’s a result of malabsorption or if you don’t want to lose weight. Swallowing too much air, which is usually triggered by anxiety, can also cause stools to float.
What Can I Do to Get Regular?
If your typical behaviors fall outside of these guidelines, try the following tips to get back on track. Be patient: It may take days or weeks before you notice improvement. And speak to your doctor before trying anything that involves drastic changes to your regular routine. Embarrassed? Don’t be. Your physician hears about these issues all the time and only wants to help you feel your best.
- Stick to a Schedule, but Don’t Force It Always respond quickly to your bathroom urges, since putting them off can cause constipation. It may be useful for people with chronic constipation to create a routine time to use the bathroom. For some, the ideal is 30 to 60 minutes after breakfast or lunch, when the intestines are in motion. Don’t rush yourself, but try not to linger on the toilet too often either, as you may risk developing hemorrhoids. Straining or pushing during a bowel movement can damage pelvic floor muscles; instead, try relaxing and opening your jaw and mouth, breathing deeply, putting your feet up on a stool or leaning forward and grasping your ankles.
- Eat More Fiber Fiber moves through your digestive system, for the most part, as is. Once it makes it to your intestines, fiber gives stool a gel-like texture, as well as some bulk, helping it better form and pass more easily. Adults should aim for 21 to 38 grams of fiber each day, or 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories of food consumed. Reach for options like whole grain cereals and breads, produce and nuts. If you fall short, try eating more high-fiber foods such as legumes and bran, or leaving the skins and peels on vegetables and fruits. Introduce more fiber gradually to your diet to help prevent gas or bloating that you may experience if you add too much, too fast.
- Forego Trigger Foods Try keeping a food journal to track any uncomfortable digestive symptoms and the foods that may trigger them. Common culprits include gluten, dairy, cabbage or coleslaw, fructose (a type of sugar), sorbitol (an artificial sweetener) and carbonated beverages. Once you determine which foods you react to, you can avoid them or indulge in them sparingly.
- Drink Fluids Staying hydrated also helps soften stool, making bowel movements easier to pass. The average adult should aim for a minimum of 64 ounces (about eight glasses) of fluids each day—that can come from water, tea and even water-rich fruits, such as oranges and grapes. Naturally-sweetened juices are also good choices, just be mindful of the calories. In Ayurvedic medicine, practitioners recommend drinking warm water to promote healthy bowel movements, which you may want to try. Some people experience variations in bowel movements based on their caffeine and alcohol consumption, so just be aware of that possibility if you choose to drink either.
Be Predictable When it comes to your diet, there’s a benefit to being boring. Because your bowels respond best to a regular schedule, it’s helpful to have similar-size meals and snacks consistently each day. Smaller meals eaten several times daily are easier to digest than large, infrequent meals, as is food that’s eaten slowly and chewed thoroughly. Don’t eat past the point of feeling full, and avoid late-night snacking.
Stay Fit Regular exercise stimulates the muscles in your digestive tract, keeping food moving through your intestine at a healthy pace so you aren’t backed up. It also is an important part of maintaining a healthy weight, which helps reduce your risk of colon cancer. Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days of the week. Working out at roughly the same time each day will also help your body stay regular.
Find Ways to Relax Neurotransmitters, chemicals that transport messages throughout the body, are found in your intestines, just as they are in your brain. It makes sense, then, that anxiety and stress can play critical roles in bowel problems. Getting plenty of sleep and practicing stress management and relaxation techniques—such as deep breathing, meditation and massage—are good strategies for both a sound mind and a calm, peaceful digestive system.
Try Probiotics Probiotics are live microorganisms found in fermented foods like yogurt; they are also available in supplement form. They can help restore friendly bacteria in the intestines that people who suffer from diarrhea or IBS may lack. Probiotics may also benefit people who get the runs while taking antibiotics, since the drugs can unintentionally kill good bacteria while destroying the bad.
- Choose OTC Remedies Wisely Laxatives, stool softeners or other over-the-counter products may help with constipation, but overuse can actually worsen your condition or lead to dependence. Instead, ask your doctor if you should try bulk-forming fiber substitutes, such as psyllium (Metamucil), polycarbophil (FiberCon) and methylcellulose (Citrucel). These may be used daily and could be especially helpful if your diet lacks proper amounts of dietary fiber.
When Should I Be Concerned?
Any sudden or persistent change in bowel habits is a good reason to see your doctor. These warning signs, in particular, can indicate that something serious may be at play:
• Difficult or infrequent bowel movements for three weeks or more
• Frequent loose stools, often with an urgent need to move the bowels, for more than two days
• A chronic feeling that your bowels do not empty completely
• Stools that are oddly shaped, such as narrow like a pencil
• Frequent abdominal discomfort, such as gas, cramping or bloating
• Unexplained weight loss
• Pain before, during or after bowel movements
• Blood or mucus in your stool
• Chronic bowel leakage or lack of bowel control
Whether you experience bowel troubles or not, make sure that you are screened for colorectal cancer starting at age 50 (or earlier if you are at increased risk).