November 06, 2023
It may not be a pleasant subject to discuss, but bowel regularity plays a crucial role in your overall health.
How frequently people have bowel movements varies widely, but doctors consider anything from three bowel movements a day, to three a week, to be normal. That means that one person’s “normal” could mean constipation for someone else.
Regardless of how often you normally have bowel movements, having them regularly is important. If you don’t have one for many days, digestive waste can back up in your intestines and eventually harm your organs.
Prolonged diarrhea, on the other hand, can cause dehydration. That can be serious for children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.
Bowel movements are the end product of digestion, the process through which your body breaks down food into nutrients it can use, and gets rid of the waste it can’t.
Your small bowel (or small intestine) breaks down the partially digested food that comes from your stomach into liquid, and absorbs most of its nutrients. That leaves a liquid waste that travels into your large bowel (or large intestine), which breaks it down, absorbs water from it, shapes it into stool, and moves it into your rectum.
Your bowels keep your digestive process flowing by contracting. How frequently they contract determines how often you have bowel movements.
• When your bowels contract too frequently, your large bowel doesn’t have enough time to absorb water from the liquid waste it receives from your small bowel. It also doesn’t have time to shape the waste. The result is the loose, watery stool associated with diarrhea.
• When your bowels don’t contract frequently enough, the liquid waste from your small bowel moves through your large bowel too slowly. That results in your large bowel absorbing more water from the waste than normal. When that happens, you pass the hard, dry stools associated with constipation.
Conditions that can cause constipation include:
• Intestinal blockage
• Neurological problems, such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis
• Pelvic floor dysfunction
Dietary causes of constipation include not eating enough fiber or not drinking enough water, as well as eating too much sugar and animal fat. Constipation also can be caused by some medicines, including laxatives if you rely on them too often. Not getting enough exercise, and not relieving yourself when you have to go, can also lead to constipation.
Common causes of diarrhea include:
• Digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease.
• Viruses and bacteria
• Food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance
• Heavy alcohol use
• Specific sugars, such as fructose
• Too much coffee
Constipation and diarrhea can sometimes be the result of a serious medical condition. If you have prolonged or recurring bouts of either, you should see a medical professional.
For constipation, stimulant laxatives can be helpful, but you shouldn’t use them for too long. Stool softeners can also provide relief. Bulk-forming fiber supplements that contain calcium polycarbophil (FiberCon), methylcellulose (Citrucel), psyllium (Metamucil), or polyethylene glycol (Miralax) are also reliable remedies for constipation. They may take a little longer to work than stimulant laxatives and stool softeners, but they’re safe for daily use.
Remedies for diarrhea include over-the-counter medications with loperamide (Imodium), or bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol and Kaopectate). To avoid dehydration when you have diarrhea, be sure to drink plenty of water and low-sugar sports drinks with electrolytes while you’re recovering.
Preventing constipation that’s not caused by another condition is simple. You can do it by:
• Maintaining a healthy, nutritious diet
• Eating at the same times each day
• Getting enough fluids
• Exercising regularly
• Prioritizing sleep
There are also steps you can take to decrease your risk of getting diarrhea. They include:
• Regularly washing your hands with soap
• Practicing good food hygiene
• Being careful what you drink, especially when traveling abroad
Bowel regularity may not be the most pleasant topic, but it’s important to understand how to maintain your digestive health and avoid potential causes of irregularity. If you’re experiencing bowel irregularity, most cases can be relieved through simple lifestyle adjustments, such as eating a healthy diet, drinking enough water, exercising regularly, and practicing good hygiene.