How often do you go? Every day . . . every other . . . a few times a week? And is that "normal"? When it comes to bowel habits, many people have misconceptions about what's normal. Some overuse laxatives because they believe toxins will accumulate in their body if they don't have a daily bowel movement, while others live with the bloating and discomfort of constipation.
The fact is that what's normal varies from person to person and may be as frequent as three times a day or as few as three times a week. But without any strict standards for comparison, how do you know whether you're regular? The first step is to clear up any confusion about what's healthy and what's not.
Your digestive system is vital to your health. It processes the food you take in, absorbing the nutrients and energy your body needs and eliminating the waste that you don't need. Under normal circumstances, food travels from your mouth, down the esophagus to the stomach, and through the small intestine, where essential nutrients are absorbed. Then, whatever is not used moves to the colon, also known as the large intestine or bowel. This is the stage of the process that is most directly related to your regularity.
As the solid food waste passes through it, your colon gradually soaks up the remaining water in the waste and shapes it into stool. In the colon, gentle wavelike muscle contractions known as peristalsis slowly push stool downward toward the rectum, and stronger contractions then signal the urge to have a bowel movement. If you respond to these signals by passing soft, solid stools without cramps, pain, or strain, you should consider yourself regular, even if you don't have the prototypical one bowel movement a day.
The digestive system is fairly sensitive, so don't be alarmed if, from time to time, things start to move more slowly than usual. Occasional bouts of constipation are quite common -- at any time, constipation affects 10% of the population.
In most cases, a lifestyle factor rather than an underlying health problem disrupts the body's normal rhythm and slows the movement of stool through the colon. This causes more water to be absorbed from the stool than would normally occur, and as a result, stools become drier and harder, making them more difficult to pass out of the body.
So what can you do to avoid an uncomfortable "back up"? Try to establish -- and stick to -- regular routines for meals, sleep, and bathroom breaks. And if you have to go -- then, go. One of the biggest contributors to constipation is ignoring this urge, either because you're too busy or you're not comfortable moving your bowels when away from home. Lack of fiber in the diet and a change in dietary habits are other common causes of intermittent constipation.
Gradually increasing your dietary fiber and fluid intake should be your first line of treatment. The extra fiber will help keep things moving because fiber absorbs water and swells in the bowel, creating bulkier stools, which stimulate the contractions in the bowel that push stool along. If dietary measures alone aren't sufficient, nutritional supplementation, over-the-counter laxatives, and bulk-forming fiber supplements are also effective forms of self-treatment.
5 Rules for Regularity
There are also several food-based folk remedies that may help relieve occasional constipation. Try:
If self-treatment doesn't help to normalize your bowel habits, or if your well-established pattern suddenly changes without any explanation, see your physician. Extended bouts of constipation may be a symptom of another disease or condition. And chronic constipation may lead to hemorrhoids, diverticular disease, yeast/candida infection, bowel obstruction, enlarged prostate, fatigue, irritability, mild depression, and decreased libido.
If you're not sure whether your patterns constitute constipation, answer these questions.
During the past year, have you:
If you answered Yes to two or more questions, make an appointment with your healthcare provider to find out if you have a condition more serious than constipation alone. Make note of the following factors to discuss with your doctor:
Remember, what's normal for one person may not be normal for another. Your digestive system is unique and behaves according to your body makeup, daily habits, and lifestyle, so rather than focusing on a particular number, focus on what's regular for you most of the time.