Constipated? Always Going? Signs Your Digestion Isn't Normal

When it comes to poop, here's how often you should be going.

chalk, anatomy, drawing, intestines

Everyone's digestion is a bit different, but there are some universal indicators of a healthy system—and an unhealthy one.

First, let’s review the basics: The digestive system is responsible for transporting food from the mouth, through the stomach and small intestine, into the large intestine and finally, out the other end. As your meal travels along this path, it's broken down by enzymes, gut bacteria, stomach acid and bile.

If you’ve ever had a bout of bloating, diarrhea, constipation or other tummy troubles, you’ve probably asked yourself, "is my digestion normal?"

This is a question Joe Llenos, MD, a family practitioner with West Valley Medical Center in Caldwell, Idaho, hears a lot. We spoke with Dr. Llenos about what "normal" digestion looks like, ways to spot the signs of an unhealthy system and some tips to keep things moving the way they should.

What normal digestion looks like

"Normal digestion can get tricky to define, because each person has their own normal," Llenos says.

Research suggests, "A normal range [of bowel movements] is from three times a day to three times a week," he adds. But the number of movements doesn’t tell the whole story. 

The color of your stool may also be an indicator of digestive health. Black, red or yellow and greasy stool may signal a digestive issue, like celiac disease or bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. Healthy stool, a mix of water, bacteria and indigestible food particles, is the brown (or even green) color you might expect, and passes with ease.

"You should be passing stool without any problems—it should be an effortless practice," Llenos says. If you have to strain, you may be constipated.

Risk factors for constipation include an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity, or a more serious condition, like diabetes or blockage in the colon or rectum. But constipation isn't the only red flag.

Signs it's not so normal

"If you're starting to struggle passing stool or the amount of stool decreases, it might be a clue to see your doctor," says Llenos.

In addition to being uncomfortable, constipation can trigger other complications. Although more research is needed to draw a definitive conclusion, some research suggests frequent straining can lead to a condition called diverticulosis, in which small pouches bulge out though the colon. Prolonged constipation can also cause hemorrhoids.

Constipation isn't the only worrisome change. Any change in frequency, color or consistency can be problematic.

Diarrhea, characterized by frequent, loose bowel movements, can pose a threat to your health, too. Diarrhea can be caused by a virus or bacteria, gastrointestinal conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome, certain medications, food intolerances or sugary foods and artificial sweeteners.

If your condition is caused by the latter, the watery stool will subside on its own. To help the process, try eating foods like crackers, toast and rice and drinking plenty of water, as diarrhea can up your risk for dehydration. Avoiding eats that may upset your stomach, like dairy and fried foods, is also a good idea.

If symptoms persist for longer than two days, you experience black or bloody stool, you become dehydrated or run a fever, it's best to take a trip to your doctor's office.

What you can do about it

If you find your digestion is out of whack, a few simple tweaks may be all you need to get back on track. Llenos recommends increasing your water intake and eating a diet full of fiber-rich fruits and veggies.

"It's very important to drink a lot of water. I tell my patients to drink until their urine is clear," he says. Overhydrating is a concern for people with certain health conditions, like heart failure and kidney disease. Speak with your doctor about appropriate fluid intake.

"It's also important to get fiber from whole foods, like fruits and the vegetables that have properties to help prevent heart disease and control blood sugar," Llenos say.

These suggestions are especially important if you're experiencing signs of constipation. Both dehydration and too little dietary fiber can up the risk for this uncomfortable condition.

As a general rule, adults should consume between 21 and 38 daily grams of fiber and, according the National Academy of Medicine, the equivalent of 11 to 16 8-ounce glasses of water a day. We get water from some of the foods we eat, too.

Other healthful digestive tips include:

  • Eating more whole grains
  • Avoiding added sugars
  • Consuming foods with probiotics
  • Cutting unhealthy fats
  • Getting regular physical activity

If these at-home remedies don't quell symptoms or funky movements don’t dissipate within a few days, speak with your doctor about other possible causes of irregularity.

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