Bowel health is an important topic, as changes in bowel movements can be a sign of a health problem. But before you begin to worry about how “normal” you are, you have to know what a regular bowel movement is for you.
Many people wrongly believe that having regular bowel movements means you move your bowels every day. However, everyone’s bowels are unique to them, and what’s normal for one person may not be normal for another. You can have a bowel movement anywhere from one to three times a day at the most, or three times a week at the least, and still be considered regular, as long as that’s your usual pattern. More or less frequent would be considered abnormal, but not necessarily cause for alarm, says gastroenterologist Arthur Magun, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York City.
What Happens With a Bowel Movement
Digestion begins in your mouth and stomach and ends in your bowels — the lower parts of your digestive tract. When the food you eat reaches your bowels, the water and salts that remain are absorbed. The digested food that is left becomes more solid and exists as bowel movements.
Dr. Magun explains that normal bowel movements “consist of formed, brown stools, not too hard, not too loose.”
When stools are too loose, you can have diarrhea. When they are too hard and dry, you can be constipated.
Symptoms of constipation include not having a bowel movement for more than three days and having hard, dry stools that are painful or difficult to pass.
What Causes Constipation
A variety of circumstances can cause constipation, including a change in routine such as when traveling, becoming pregnant, dieting, taking certain medications, and lacking physical exercise, particularly in older people. Certain health conditions, from a bowel disease to stroke, can also be a factor.
Here’s what you can do to promote regular bowel movements:
Eat more fiber
“Constipation is almost always due to inadequate fiber and liquid,” Magun says. Fiber can be found in beans, fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Strive for 20 to 35 grams of fiber a day. “Unprocessed bran is the best type of fiber,” he adds.
Eat fewer low-fiber foods
These include ice cream, cheese, meat, processed foods, and sugary foods such as soda and candy — which can all cause constipation.
“Eating enough bran and drinking the right amounts of water will lead to increased bulk within the intestine,” Magun says. Having the right amount of bulk stretches the intestine (a muscle) and causes it to contract and propel food along properly. “This is what leads to regular bowel movements,” he adds. Besides water, good choices are 100-percent fruit juices (juice with pulp has some fiber), soup, and tea.
Don’t rely on laxatives
Improper use of laxatives can actually make symptoms of constipation worse, so take them only as directed.
“Stress can sometimes cause the large intestine to spasm, leading to pain and hard stools,” Magun says. Stress-reducing techniques that can improve constipation symptoms include yoga, meditation, and exercise.
Don’t ignore the urge to go. Resisting the urge to go or waiting to go to the bathroom also can cause constipation — or make existing symptoms worse.
Everyone has their own normal pattern of bowel movements, but if you find that you frequently experience symptoms of constipation, and if eating more fiber and drinking more water doesn’t help, talk to your doctor. He can determine whether a health check is necessary.