(WAB NEWS) — Everyone poops, but it turns out we don’t all need to poop every day.
That it should be done daily is a misconception, says Dr. Folasade May, a gastroenterologist and associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine.
“I even have people make appointments, because they’re like, ‘Oh, I stopped pooping every day a few years ago,'” May recounted. “And I have to remind people that there really isn’t a set or normal number of bowel movements.”RELATED
That notion likely stems from the Victorian-era belief that daily bowel movements make you healthier, says Dr. Michael Camilleri, a consultant and professor in the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. “Most people have a bowel movement between three times a day and three times a week,” Camilleri adds.
“Anything within that range, we consider normal.”
When it comes to bowel movements as a measure of health, frequency isn’t the only important factor. Several factors can influence how often we poop, including diet, hydration, stress, age, medication use and social circumstances, according to Dr. Trisha Pasricha, a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Are your poop habits appropriate?
In addition to how often you have a bowel movement, it helps to know what your stool looks like.
“The shape, appearance or consistency of the stool is actually a much better criterion than simple frequency numbers,” says Camilleri.
Medical professionals assess the quality of stool by bristol stool chart, which classifies feces into seven groups. The healthiest types of poop are types three and four: sausage-shaped poop with cracks on the surface or snake-shaped and smooth.
If you poop three times a week and the consistency is hard or pebble-like, it might be fine if you haven’t experienced any changes in your quality of life, says Pasricha.
But if you strain too hard trying to go to the bathroom, or feel like you haven’t emptied your bowels completely, you may need to make changes to go more often or have a healthier stool quality, experts say.
Putting your feet up on a toilet seat, or even a stack of books, can help. This raises the knees above the hips, which relaxes the pelvic floor muscles that support the bowel and makes it easier for stool to pass, explains Pasricha.
“We didn’t evolve to defecate sitting with our hips at 90 degrees in a chair, which is what we do now. We used to defecate squatting,” he explains. “Sitting at that sort of 90-degree vertical angle actually closes the duct.”
How to have a healthy bowel movement
In the same way that we must make the right decisions to have a restful sleep, we must make good food and drink choices to keep our intestines healthy.
According to experts, eating enough fiber from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts can help prevent constipation. Total fiber intake should be at least 25 grams daily, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
According to some studies, kiwis and prunes may be especially helpful in relieving constipation. But don’t eat too much fiber, as it has been linked to bloating or loose stools, according to experts.
Being hydrated enough softens your stool so you can pass it effortlessly, May said.
“Coffee or caffeinated beverages have also been shown to stimulate colon contractions,” Camilleri said, noting that they can induce bowel movements.
On the other hand, a high-fat diet can slow down the digestive system, May adds.
What else affects our bowel movements?
Movement matters too. According to May, many people in the US lead a sedentary lifestyle, but exercise helps the digestive tract to massage and move food, favoring the evacuation of stool.
How quickly or slowly food moves through the digestive tract can also depend on genetics, May explains, and our digestive systems tend to slow down with age.
Medical conditions such as hypothyroidism, irritable bowel syndrome, irritable bowel disease, or ulcerative colitis can affect regularity, as can some medications, such as opioids and antidepressants. Having a baby or gaining and losing a lot of weight can also cause pelvic floor dysfunction, making it difficult to pass stool, May notes.
Stress can also affect our bowel movements. When we eat, the stomach stretches and sends a message to the brain and then to the spinal cord, whose nerves induce colon contractions, Camilleri explains.
But if we are stressed, hormones and changes in the nervous system can prevent stool from moving towards the rectum, causing constipation. Some people experience the other extreme, diarrhea, when they are stressed.
Bowel regularity can also be influenced by not responding to the urge to go to the bathroom due to not having easy or private access to toilets, experts say. Some people may be embarrassed to defecate at work or at school.
But don’t delay: The right time to go to the bathroom is when you feel the urge, experts say.
If you have to sit on the toilet for more than five to 10 minutes, you should see your doctor, Camilleri says. Swelling, bloating or pain are other signs that the frequency of bowel movements is negatively affecting your health.
But if you’re taking too long to go to the bathroom because you’re on the phone, keep it from distracting you, Camilleri said.
If lifestyle changes don’t work, your doctor may prescribe medications, supplements, or laxatives to help maintain regularity.