There are many good reasons to improve your poops. For starters, maintaining a healthy bowel routine keeps your pelvic muscles fit and your time on the toilet brief. It helps prevent chronic constipation and diarrhoea, along with secondary problems such as haemorrhoids, tissue tears and unpredictable stools. Use our guide below to make your bowel movements the best they can be.
Know Your Type
A stool scale developed at the University of Bristol describes seven stool formations, from severe constipation (hard little lumps) to severe diarrhoea (practically water). The ideal is type 3 or 4: sausage-like and S-shaped in the bowl, passed painlessly and without straining or spending too long on the toilet. If your poop is lower on the scale (trending towards constipation) or higher and looser, chances are that dietary and lifestyle changes will help.
Below the Surface
Poops that contain a lot of gas or are low in fibre may lack enough density to sink. Don’t be too alarmed by floaters, which aren’t generally a sign of disease. But if you also see fat droplets in the toilet bowl that don’t flush away with the rest of your business, it could indicate a malabsorption disorder, such as coeliac disease, which needs investigation.
The Smell Test
Frankly, stool stinks. The bad smell comes from short-chain fatty acids, a normal by-product created by the bacteria in your bowel as they ferment foods. The odour of your poop may also be influenced by various spices or marinades in your foods and the diversity of your gut bacteria. Stool will smell fouler than usual, however, if you’re excreting digested blood (which warrants a doctor’s visit) or infectious diarrhoea (see your doctor for this, too, if it’s severe), or if it contains an excess amount of malabsorbed fat.
The hues of poop vary widely depending on what you’ve consumed, especially if you’ve eaten a lot of it, or if it contains food dyes. Blueberries and stout beer can darken the colour, and green vegetables can turn it more of a shamrock shade. Beets can make it look red. However, red can also signify bleeding, a symptom of cancer, inflammatory bowel disease or other problems. Black, tarry stool may mean you’re bleeding somewhere higher up, such as the stomach.
It’s important to seek medical attention if you suspect bleeding. Same with very pale poop, which can be a sign of a bile duct problem. Some medications can temporarily change your stool colour, including iron supplements, which make it look black.
It’s worth noting that faecal blood can be microscopic, so it may not be visible. “If you have a family history of colon cancer or you’re over the age of 50, ask your doctor about screening,” says gastroenterologist Dr Carlo Fallone.
What’s the Frequency?
Is there such a thing as too many number twos? What about movements that make only rare appearances? “There’s a huge range of what’s considered normal,” says gastroenterologist Dr Dina Kao. Some of us are on the throne three times a day, while others poop once every few days. There’s no need to worry about the frequency of your bowel movements if your stool appears normal and you feel well. But don’t dismiss symptoms like fever, pain or dehydration. “If there’s blood, any change in your usual pattern of bowel movements, or weight loss, or if you have any concerns, you should speak to your doctor,” says Dr Fallone.
Facts About Farts
Flatulence is inevitable. The bacteria in your bowel naturally generate gases as they ferment the bits of food your body can’t digest – and there’s only one way out. We tend to toot more frequently (or more pungently) depending on our diet, which is probably why some folks seem fartier than others. “Other than the inconvenience and embarrassment of it, it’s probably not due to anything serious,” says gastroenterologist Dr Geoffrey Turnbull. Nevertheless, you may be able to adjust your output with the dietary tweaks suggested below.
Foods That Make Us GO
The high sorbitol content in dried fruits such as prunes, figs and dates acts as a laxative. So does flaxseed. Fresh pears and apples sometimes do the trick. Eating breakfast can increase your colon activity and trigger a bowel movement.
Our Friend, Fibre
Dietary fibre produces perfect poo. Because it isn’t digested, it bulks up and softens stool, making it easier to pass. According to health authorities, most of us get just half of what we require (women should have 25 grams a day, and men 38). “If you’re eating whole grains, or about half your plate at each meal is fruits and vegetables, you’re likely meeting your needs,” says Whitney Hussain, a registered dietitian who specialises in gastrointestinal disorders. You can also choose cereals with added fibre. Psyllium is a popular supplement, but watch out for inulin, which triggers a sore stomach in some people. Hussain suggests adding fibre to your diet gradually to prevent gas and bloating.
Without enough fluid, your stool will be dry and hard. Other signs that you probably need more water – or other sources of fluid, such as milk, juice, soup and tea – include dry lips and mouth, dark urine and urinating fewer than four times a day. The ideal amount of hydration is different for everyone and depends on factors like your body size and activity level.
Foods to Forsake
Processed foods containing refined grain, such as white flour, may have a longer shelf life, but they won’t do you any favours in the fibre department. They’re also often higher in fat, a common constipation trigger. White rice, as opposed to its whole-grain brown counterpart, can be another culprit. Carbonated or diet beverages may give you gas and bloating, as can certain foods such as cabbage, beans, onions and lentils.
Don’t Blame Caffeine!
Many people report urgent bathroom visits after their morning brew, but both regular and decaffeinated coffee appear to have the same effect. The warmth could be playing a role in speeding up the system. Coffee also contains about 100 different compounds, one or more of which may trigger the production of stomach acid and the release of digestive hormones, and increase activity in the large intestine.
Mind Your Manners
How you eat is just as important as what you eat. Avoid gulping your food or drinking through a straw, which can cause you to swallow air and make you gassy. Same with talking a lot during a meal. Eat on schedule – postponing a meal or snack can give you bloating. Hussain has this tip: “Focus on your hunger cue, so when you’re feeling full, stop eating, rather than eating until you’re super stuffed.”
You need to keep your body moving in order to keep your bowels moving. Regular physical activity, such as a brisk daily walk, can help prevent constipation. Overtraining is thought to cause bowel symptoms like flatulence and loose poops in some people, especially if they’re exercising intensely in a hot environment, but that’s rare.
Faecal incontinence – leakage of stool – can be prevented or managed. In some cases, dietary changes to add more bulky fibre or reduce gas will help. If it’s caused by overstretched and weak muscles, a physiotherapist can show you pelvic floor exercises to strengthen them.
Boost Your Microbiome
You share your gastrointestinal tract with about 100 trillion microbes, and that’s a good thing; a diverse ecosystem keeps you healthy. Some people take probiotic supplements to promote healthy bacteria, but these products typically contain only a handful of species. You’re more likely to encourage a diverse population – we’re talking thousands of species – by eating a variety of fibre-rich foods.
Keep Calm and Caca On
Stress has an impact on your poops. The gut literally has a mind of its own – it’s lined with millions of nerve cells that make up what’s known as the enteric nervous system – and it sends signals to the brain, and vice-versa. That’s why your feelings of anxiety can produce cramping and diarrhoea. Conversely, research has found that psychological strategies to reduce stress can improve these bowel symptoms in people who have functional disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Our Bodies’ Chemistry
Hormone fluctuations may affect your gut. About half of premenopausal women who aren’t on birth control get constipation or diarrhoea depending on where they are in their monthly cycle. Hormones during pregnancy serve to relax muscle contractions.
Both men and women experience hormonal shifts as we get older, thought to be a potential influence on the decreasing diversity and robustness of our microbiome as we age. Unfortunately, these bacterial changes may weaken immunity and lower protection from the cognitive effects of ageing.
All kinds of drugs, from antidepressants to narcotics to blood pressure pills, list diarrhoea or constipation among potential side effects. “If your medication is giving you bowel problems, talk to the doctor,” says Dr Turnbull. “
Try to Keep It Natural
Before resorting to pharmacy laxatives to relieve constipation, consider lifestyle improvements such as increasing your fluid and fibre intake, getting more exercise and avoiding foods that plug you up. “If this doesn’t work, laxatives may be necessary, such as psyllium supplementation, stool softeners or polyethylene glycol,” says Dr Fallone. “In general, one wants to avoid prolonged use of agents that can damage the colon, such as senna products.” If necessary, speak to your doctor about using laxatives.
The BEST Position
To adopt the perfect pooping posture, lean forward with your knees higher than your hips and your elbows on your knees, and relax your belly. The bottom of the rectum has a muscle that wraps around like a slingshot, called the puborectalis. “When it shortens and contracts, it narrows the rectal opening and prevents stool from coming down,” says pelvic health physiotherapist Gayle Hulme. “Putting the knees up allows for that muscle to relax and lengthen, and it opens the rectum.”
Don’t Push It
Avoid holding your breath and straining. The pressure can overstretch muscles and weaken them, contribute to haemorrhoids and cause anal fissures. It can also close off your anus instead of allowing it to relax and open. You may end up with constipation or more difficulty holding in your bowel movements.
Stick to a Schedule
Your colon has a sleep-wake cycle just like you do, and you can encourage a daily morning poop by eating a proper breakfast and giving yourself time to go. In general, try to answer the call of nature when it comes. The longer your stool sits in the large intestine, the more it dries out as water is absorbed. “You can make constipation worse by inhibiting the urge to go,” says Dr Turnbull.
Go in a familiar environment if you can, and don’t rush the process. Give yourself a few minutes, if you need it, to release any tension.
Be Kind to Your Behind
Your derrière is delicate. Too much wiping with paper can damage skin, causing it to itch, feel sore and bleed. If you tend to get irritation around the area, try cleaning with water and cotton pads instead of toilet paper (or use a wet wipe). Rinse well and pat dry. You may get relief with a sitz bath – a shallow, warm bath for just your bum – after bowel movements. “Some foods, such as coffee and citrus foods, tend to make this irritation worse,” Dr Turnbull notes.
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