Your bowel movements can tell you a lot about your health. Paying attention to your bowel movements and how often you have a bowel movement can give you a deeper understanding of your current state of health, and can help you understand what’s going on inside your body, and what you can do to take better care of your health
In this article, we’re going to explore the digestive process, bowel movements, and how they relate to your health.
The Digestive Process
Before we go any further, let’s first discuss the process of digestion and how food is processed by the body.
Obtaining nutrition and energy from food is a multi-step process, which begins with the first bite; actually, before that bite, because our saliva can start flowing at the anticipation of food. We have all heard the expression “mouthwatering;” saliva begins flowing and with it the enzymes amylase, which begins the process of breaking down starches into simple sugars, lipase (which breaks down fat), and a little protease (to break down proteins). This is also one of the reasons why chewing food thoroughly is so important, not only to break it into smaller particles but also to mix saliva into it.
Not including salvation, the first step in the digestion process is ingestion, the act of taking in food through the mouth. The large molecules found in intact food cannot pass through the cell membranes. Food needs to be broken into smaller particles so that our bodies can harness the nutrients and organic molecules.
Once in the mouth, the teeth, saliva, and tongue play important roles in mastication, or chewing—an extremely important part of the digestive process. Digestive enzymes only work on the surfaces of food particles, so the smaller the particle, the more efficient the digestive process. While the food is being mechanically broken down, the enzymes in saliva begin to chemically process the food as well. The combined action of these processes modifies the food from large particles to a soft mass that can be swallowed and can travel the length of the esophagus.
Once swallowed, the esophagus produces a movement that carries food into the stomach. The stomach is the point of collection where, through the body’s incredible intelligence, the food substance is identified. It is through this identification process that many kinds of chemical reactions take place.
Simple carbohydrates (fruits, etc.) require little to no digestion. Liquids also leave the stomach very quickly. But complex carbohydrates, proteins and fats will stay in the stomach for three to five hours.
The stomach is lined with millions of tiny villi, which are also found in the small intestine. Once food is identified, a signal sent from the brain releases hydrochloric acid into the stomach. This is the only acid the body produces; the stomach lining is protected by an alkaline mucus coating to neutralize its effect, except on the contents of the stomach.
This is a critical stage, because if the body does not produce enough hydrochloric acid or if it is diluted through ingesting too much fluid with the meal, this initial breakdown of the food substance will not take place. To make the situation worse, many people follow their meal with desert, by which time hydrochloric acid has already been introduced into the stomach. This combination of hydrochloric acid and simple carbohydrate sugar inhibits efficient digestion from happening.
As food leaves the stomach it enters into the small intestine, which begins with the duodenum, a curved tube that is approximately the same length as the esophagus. This is where food, that hopefully has achieved the initial stages of digestion, is broken down further.
Here the liver, pancreas and gall bladder all participate: the liver produces bile which is stored in the gallbladder and is released into the duodenum separating fats so that the pancreatic enzymes can break them down into a water-soluble form that the body can assimilate. Bile also helps in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and the assimilation of calcium, as well as converting beta-carotene into vitamin A. The pancreatic enzymes, amylases, lipases and proteases neutralize the hydrochloric acid to produce the alkaline environment necessary for absorption, and further break down proteins and carbohydrates. The pancreas also secretes insulin into the bloodstream, regulating the burning of sugars in the body.
The next twenty feet of the small intestine is where digestion is completed, in the jejunum (approximately 10 feet) and ileum (10-12 feet). It is here that almost all absorption of nutrients takes place, and, if the environment is right—given the earlier stages provided the proper breakdown—that enzymes will have broken down the food molecules into a size that the billions of villi or cells lining the small intestine will assimilate as nutrients.
Once absorbed by the villi, amino acids from protein, sugar from complex carbohydrates, fatty acid, glycerol, vitamins, minerals and cholesterol all enter the bloodstream to be assimilated to the body’s trillions of cells. Assimilation gets the nutrients from your food to your cells where they are used for growth and repair.
The indigestible material from the food then moves from the small intestine to the ileum and then into the colon (large intestine). A valve, called the ileocecal valve, operates at this junction, preventing backup into the ileum. The indigestible material, mainly cellulose, enters into the colon in a liquid state. During the next 10 to 14 hours these substances will be dehydrated and stored in preparation for elimination.
To summarize, digestion begins in the mouth, with the process of chewing food into smaller particles and combining it with enzyme-rich saliva. Once swallowed, the food then travels down the esophagus into the stomach, where it is broken down further by hydrochloric acid and is then released into the duodenum, where it is even further broken down by bile and digestive enzymes. In the remaining part of the small intestine (jejunum and ileum), the broken-down nutrients from the food are then absorbed by billions of villi lining the small intestine, and enter into the bloodstream, where they are then assimilated by the blood and distributed to the body’s many cells where they are used for tissue growth and repair. The indigestible material from the food enters the colon, where it is formed into excrement and then eliminated.
Understanding the digestive process is helpful for knowing exactly what is going on when you eat, and how your diet and eating habits influence your bowel movements.
What Is a Bowel Movement?
Everybody poops. We heard it when we were kids, but most for most of us, our education around poop stops there. This is unfortunate, however, since our bowel movements can tell us so much about our health.
Bowel movements are your body’s way of getting rid of waste that doesn’t have any use in the body. Without bowel movements, this waste would back up in our intestines and eventually kill you. This is why pooping is so important for your health.
While it may not look like it, poop is about three-fourths water. The remainder is a collection of materials including bacteria, fats, fiber (undigested foods), food wastes, mucus, salts. Poop also contains a brownish-red substance called bilirubin that’s the result of a breakdown of wastes from the liver and bone marrow. Bilirubin is what gives poop its usual brown color.
Types of Bowel Movements
There are many different types of bowel movements and ways that poop can look. Everyone’s body is different, so there isn’t one way your bowel movements should be. This will be determined by your individual body, diet and lifestyle. However, there are some agreed upon notions of what constitutes a “normal” poop. Normal poop is generally:
- Medium to dark brown: This is because it contains a pigment called bilirubin, which forms when red blood cells break down.
- Strong-smelling: Bacteria in excrement emit gases that contain the unpleasant odor associated with poop.
- Pain-free to pass: A healthy bowel movement should be painless and require minimal strain.
- Soft to firm in texture: Poop that is passed in one single piece or a few smaller pieces is typically considered to be a sign of a healthy bowel. The long, sausage-like shape of poop is due to the shape of the intestines.
- Passed once or twice daily: Most people pass stool once a day, although others may poop every other day or up to three times daily. At a minimum, a person should pass stool three times a week.
- Consistent in its characteristics: A healthy poop varies from person to person. However, a person should monitor any changes in the smell, firmness, frequency, or color of poop as it can indicate there is a problem.
There is actually a “poop chart” developed by doctors in the Bristol Royal Infirmary, England, known as the Bristol stool chart. This chart is based on the bowel movements of nearly 2,000 people. The Bristol stool chart characterizes the different types of poop as shown below:
Types 1 and 2 of the stool chart indicate constipation, types 3 and 4 are considered healthy stool, while types 5 to 7 suggest diarrhea and urgency.
Different Colors of Poop
Brown poop is considered the “normal” color of poop, but some greenish-brown hues may also be acceptable. Poop can be other colors too, and the color of your poop can be a good indication of your body’s state of health.
If stool appears yellow or is greasy-looking, it suggests the poop contains too much fat. This may be the result of absorption issues, or difficulty producing enzymes or bile.
Consuming many orange-colored foods, which are rich in a pigment called beta-carotene, can cause orange stool. Carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squash are among the many foods that contain this pigment. However, blocked bile ducts or certain medications including some antacids and the antibiotic rifampin can also cause orange poop.
Spinach, kale, or other green foods can cause green poop. This is because of the green pigment chlorophyll. The more chlorophyll-rich a food is, the more likely it will be to show up in your poop. However, green-colored stool may also be a sign that there is too much bile and not enough bilirubin in the poop. This is typically a brighter color green.
Poop that is red-colored may be the result of gastrointestinal bleeding. Small amounts of blood in the stool can indicate hemorrhoids. Eating beets or red berries, or drinking beet or tomato juice, also turns poop red. Once these foods have passed through the digestive tract, poop should become brown again.
Stools that are black, especially if they have the appearance of coffee grounds, suggest gastrointestinal bleeding. Substances such as iron supplements, black licorice, black stout, and bismuth medications also cause black poop.
White, Gray, or Pale Poop
If stools are white, gray, or pale, a person may have an issue with the liver or gallbladder as pale stools suggest a lack of bile. There are also some anti-diarrhea medications that can cause white stools.
Nearly everyone will experience some variations in stool color at some point. This is most often just caused by diet or some other minor cause. However, if you experience changes in poop color that last for 2 or more weeks, or have red or black stool, it is recommended to see your doctor.
How Long Should a Bowel Movement Take?
A healthy bowel movement will pass moments after you sit down. At most, it should take no more than 10 to 15 minutes to pass stool. People that take longer than this may have constipation, hemorrhoids, or another condition.
Abnormal Bowel Movements
If you have any of the following types of bowel movements, it may suggest a digestive issue:
- pooping too often (more than three times daily)
- not pooping often enough (less than three times a week)
- excessive straining when pooping.
- pain when pooping
- very hard, dry poop that is difficult to pass
- watery poop (diarrhea)
- greasy, fatty stools
- poop that is colored red, black, green, yellow, or white
- blood in the stool
- bleeding while passing stool
It is recommended that anyone experiencing any of these types of poop, especially for prolonged periods of time, should see a doctor.
How Often Should I Have a Bowel Movement?
There isn’t an exact number of times you should have a bowel movement. Bowel activity varies from person to person, and really depends on your individual body, diet and lifestyle. However, medicine and science will often use the “basic rule of three” to describe a typical movement, meaning you have bowel activity anywhere between three times a day and three times a week.
While the appearance and consistency of a person’s poop can vary from person to person, most people’s poop is formed, brown, and soft. If yours is rarely like this (such as always hard or always liquid), you may want to speak with a doctor.
What Causes Constipation and Diarrhea?
Constipation and diarrhea are common digestive ailments that both involve concerns with the passage of stool. Constipation is infrequent bowel activity or difficulty passing stool, while diarrhea refers to loose or watery stools. Different factors can trigger either symptom, such as:
- Food intolerances
- Viral, bacterial, or parasitic infection
- Conditions affecting the gastrointestinal tract
Regardless of the underlying cause, though, constipation and diarrhea occur when intestinal contractions either speed up or slow down. Gut contractions help move stool through the colon. But sometimes, the muscles contract too much or too little. Diarrhea happens when these muscles contract more than usual, whereas constipation happens when they don’t contract enough.
If you are experiencing diarrhea, then avoid foods that are known to irritate the stomach and cause loose stools (especially caffeine, dairy, and alcohol), drink plenty of water or electrolyte-containing beverages to stay hydrated, and increase your fiber intake to add bulk to your stool.
If you are experiencing constipation try to get at least 25 to 31 grams of fiber per day, increase your physical activity level, drink more water, and make sure to always use the bathroom when you feel the urge to go.
Tips for Better Bowel Movements
Our bowel movements are part physical, and also part mental. Below are some tips that can help you have more comfortable and healthy bowel movements:
- Drink plenty of water
- Make sure to get sufficient fiber in your diet
- Eat whole foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds
- Remove food irritants and allergens
- Exercise and move your body regularly
- Try using a toilet foot stool to change your bathroom posture
- Keep your stress levels low
- Go to the bathroom when you feel the need
- Remember that everybody poops. There is no need to feel ashamed for having to go to the bathroom.
Bowel movements are a necessary body process. Bowel movements are your body’s way of getting rid of waste that doesn’t have any use in the body. Without bowel movements, this waste would back up in our intestines and eventually kill you—which is why pooping is so important for your health.
Your bowel movements can tell you a lot about your health. Paying attention to your bowel movements, what they look like, and how often you have a bowel movement can give you a deeper understanding of your current state of health, and can help you understand what’s going on inside your body, and what you can do to take better care of your health.
We hope this article has given you a better understanding of this important body process. The more we educate ourselves about our bodies, the more empowered we are to take control of our own health!