No ifs, ands, or “butts” about it: The scoop on poop
While the process of elimination might not seem too interesting, it’s actually quite complex and can reveal a good deal about the balance of your diet and gastrointestinal (GI) health. Talking about bowel movements is a little uncomfortable in our culture, but rest assured you can read this blog from the comfort and privacy of your home…maybe even your bathroom.
Before we get “waste” deep in discussing healthy bowel movements, it’s important to look at how we arrive at one. First off, the bowel is part of the GI tract. Our digestive tract is designed to help absorb nutrients like carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals from the food we eat. If we can’t use certain nutrients, they continue into the large intestine. Here, water and minerals are reabsorbed, and the remaining waste is formed into a stool.
Frequency: What’s normal?
There is no defined “normal” when it comes to how often you should have a bowel movement. Some people go once or twice per day, some once every few days, and others once per week. The bottom line is, as long as you feel comfortable, you don’t need to worry too much. If passing a stool is as easy as urinating or passing gas, you are okay. If you find yourself suddenly straining, consider if you have had changes in your diet, hydration, sleep, activity, stress level, or a possible illness.
What should it look like?
Bowel movements are usually brown because of bile, which is a substance used for digestion. While an unusual stool color can be harmless, and can be attributed to a certain food or medication (such as iron or Pepto-Bismol, which turns the stool black), a sudden change in stool color can be of concern. If you notice a black, bright red, pale-colored, green or orange stool that you cannot attribute to something you ate or that is accompanied by diarrhea, constipation, dizziness or weakness, contact your doctor. These changes can potentially indicate issues that need medical attention such as internal bleeding, malabsorption, liver disease or other health issues.
The Bristol Stool Chart is designed to help class stools as seen below (1).
If you find your stools fall into either type 1 or 2, it could be that you are dehydrated and constipated. In this case, you don’t want your “number 2” to be a number 2! If you are between 3 and 5 (especially type 4), you are doing pretty well. These stools are easy to pass and do not contain any excess liquid. If you are 6 or 7, you are experiencing a loose stool or diarrhea.
Keys to healthy bowel movements
There are two key elements to maintaining healthy bowel movements: a balanced diet with plenty of fiber and water, and regular physical activity. The recommended daily amount of fiber is 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women. For those over 50, the daily needs drop to 30 grams for men and 21 grams for women (2). You can easily pump up the fiber in your diet by adding some fruit with breakfast, tossing a few beans on a salad, or adding extra veggies to your favorite casserole. As for keeping well hydrated, there is no “one-size fits all” recommendation. Several factors can influence your water needs including climate, activity level, and your health. According to the Institute of Medicine, the adequate intake for total water for young men and women (ages 19 to 30 years) is 3.7 liters and 2.7 liters per day, respectively (3). Keep in mind, if you are exercising or are out in the heat, these needs will increase. In addition, the total daily water recommendations do not equate to just water or other drinks like tea or juice. Part of your daily needs could be met by noshing on foods like melons, cucumbers or a variety of greens, which contain a considerable amount of water by weight. This is a win-win, as these fruits and veggies also contain fiber.
In addition to a balanced diet, physical activity is crucial for maintaining healthy bowel movements. Exercise not only stimulates muscles in your arms, legs, and core, it also helps stimulate muscle contractions in your GI tract. The muscle contractions in your gut help stools move through your intestines quickly. When you pair a WOD or jog around the block with a balanced post-workout meal, you are on your way to a perfect #4! Next time you take a visit to the bathroom, take a moment to reflect. You might just learn a little bit more about your health.
1. Bristol stool chart. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bristol_stool_scale#mediaviewer/File:Bristol_stool_chart.svg. Accessed October 20, 2014.
2. Fiber. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6796. Accessed October 14, 2014.
3. Dietary reference intakes for water, potassium, sodium, chloride and sulfate. Institute of Medicine. http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/DRI//DRI_Water/73-185.pdf. Accessed October 14, 2014.
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