An uncomfortable topic
Discussing bowel movements may not be at the top of your most ready-to-discuss-topics list, but, bowel habits can be a sign of health or disease in the body.
The colon is one of our major detoxification pathways, and as such needs to be moving each day as we take in food.
Bowel movements help to rid the body of waste products that could be harmful if they were to enter the body.
Now, you may be thinking that those waste products are already IN the body if they are in the colon, but that’s not the case. The digestive tract, from mouth to anus, is essentially a long tube (think of a garden hose) and whatever is inside the tube is still OUTSIDE of the body because it has not yet entered the blood to be carried to our cells.
And, that’s a good thing when we're talking about waste products like feces that contain bacteria, food wastes, undigested food, mucus, and bilirubin.
Pooping is essential for our health because if the stool backs up in the intestines for too long it can lead to damaged organs and life-threatening conditions.
Healthy bowel habits
The amount of time it takes for consumed food to pass from the body (transit time), the form of the stool, and the color of the stool can all be indicators of health or disease of the bowels.
A general rule for healthy bowel habits is that you pass stool at least once each day, but if you eat three times each day, having a few bowel movements a day can be normal.
Normal transit time for solid food to pass through the digestive tract (mouth to anus) can occur anywhere between 19-36 hours, depending upon the food eaten (1). For example, when we eat a carbohydrate-rich meal, the body can move these nutrients through the small intestines more quickly than say a fat-rich meal because the fat forms an oily layer that takes longer to digest (1).
Checking your transit time can be as simple as eating a small amount of organic corn or beetroot and checking your stools for signs of corn kernels or red-coloring and noting how long it took to pass. One test that your doctor can order, a bowel transit time test, uses a wireless transmitter that sends signals to a data receiver that you wear and your doctor can then use this data to determine how long it takes food to move through your digestive tract and possibly determine where problems may be occurring (2).
In addition to transit time, the shape and color of the stool formed can provide information about illness in the body, and the Bristol Stool Chart can be a useful tool.
The Bristol Stool Chart was developed in 1997 as a clinical assessment tool to determine the digestive process, activity, and overall health of the individual (3).
Deciphering the chart:
Types 1 and 2 on the chart reflect constipation that can be associated with a low-fiber diet or sedentary lifestyle (3). Constipation can also result from not consuming enough water, medications, intestinal dysfunction, nerve dysfunction, and conditions like IBS (7).
Types 3, 4, and 5 on the chart can reflect a normal stool, with type 3 being slightly constipated and 5 being slightly loose (3).
Types 6 and 7 indicate diarrhea which can lead to nutrient deficiencies over time as food doesn’t stay long enough in the small intestine for nutrients to be extracted and absorbed into the body (3). You can go here to find out how nutrient deficiencies can lead to diseases like osteoporosis, heart disease, and cancer.
In addition to the shape, the color of the stool can also indicate disease in the body.
A healthy stool is a walnut brown color, while a lighter pale or clay-colored stool can indicate a problem such as a blocked bile duct or other issues with the liver, pancreas, or gallbladder (3). If you consistently notice red color in the stool you should consult with your healthcare provider (unless you’ve eaten beets, of course 😉) as this may be a sign of gastrointestinal bleeding (3).
Steps to take
For type 1 or 2 (constipated) on the chart, you will first want to assess your daily fiber intake and movement throughout the day.
Consume insoluble fiber, like wheat bran and dark leafy greens, to increase fecal mass and promote regularity, and be sure to increase your water intake with the increased intake of fiber to keep the stool moving (4).
Movement aids proper bowel function, so increasing your daily movement can help to prevent constipation (5). For example, taking a walk after meals can aid bowel function.
For type 6 or 7 (diarrhea) increase soluble, gel-forming fiber, like psyllium, intake to aid in bulking up the stool and avoid substances that can irritate the digestive tract, like dairy, caffeine, and alcohol until the condition resolves (6).
If either condition, constipation, or diarrhea, persists long-term, consult your healthcare provider or feel free to contact us here for help in determining the underlying cause of the bowel dysfunction.