What is a normal bowel movement?
By Jeremy Holt
Intermountain Healthcare Blog

It’s embarrassing. Everyone around you can hear your abdomen making funny noises, and your face shows the pain of your intestines tying themselves into knots. You don’t know how to stop this cycle of irregular potty habits. Fortunately, health professionals have learned how to help.

     When talking about potty habits (known in high society as bowel habits), your “normal” is whatever is normal for you. Confused? You’re not alone.

     Many well-meaning people will tell you what they think are supposed to be normal bowel habits. However, studies show having a bowel movement happens at a different frequency for everyone. If, for most of your life, you have a bowel movement every day, that’s your normal. Some people have a bowel movement about three times a week, while others, only once a week. So, after all these years, you should know what’s normal for you. (Please note: there are some “unhealthy normals” discussed later in this article.)

     Healthy bowel movements are those that allow you to empty your colon (sometimes called your intestines) often enough that you don’t feel bloated or in pain, and you don’t have to strain hard to get the job done. There’s even a chart describing what you should see before you flush the toilet (called the Bristol Stool Scale). Don’t worry! It’s alright if you don’t want to have to look at this chart.

     Here's the summary: if your poop looks like pebbles, you could be constipated (if you aren’t an infant), and if your poop is practically a liquid, you probably have diarrhea. What you want is soft, easy-to-push-out poop (hereafter referred to as “stool”).

Unhealthy bowel movements

     So, what if you do have abdominal pain and bloating, and constipation, and this is how it’s been for years. Talk to your doctor. You may just need to add a laxative to your routine, and this will help you get to a comfortable, new “normal.”

     You may need to also adjust your lifestyle to get into a healthier routine. Your doctor will also advise you on whether medical testing should be done to rule out diseases affecting bowel movements. Some of these colon diseases are only inconvenient, while others can be life-threatening, so don’t delay talking to your doctor.

     There are a lot of things that can upset your colon. First, let’s be sure we’re all talking about the same body part. Where is your colon?

     The colon is in the lower part of your abdomen, and it’s the last place the food you eat travels before it exits the body. If you look at a picture of the colon, you’ll see where the colon (large intestine) is compared to where your stomach sits. Most of us know where the stomach is if we’ve gone for a while without eating.

     Food poisoning or eating a lot of an unfamiliar food (especially high-fiber foods) can cause colon irregularity for a while. But if neither of these things are the problem, there are several easy-to-determine things that can cause your colon problems. Vacations and other types of traveling often cause changes in your bowel habits. This is because you are often eating a lot of different types of food instead of your “at home” diet, and you may not be drinking as much water as you usually do.

     Additionally, if you’re hurrying around having fun, you might not be taking time for a good, old-fashioned “rest” in the restroom. So don’t be surprised if you lose your “normal.” The good news is, when you get back to your work and home life, you’ll soon revert back to your normal self.

     Another common reason for changes in your bowel movements are medications. Many medications have a side effect of constipation. On the other hand, antibiotics are commonly associated with diarrhea. If either of these happen, consult with your doctor so you can get back to normal.

Diseases and disorders

Many diseases and disorders can cause abnormal bowel movements. In the following examples, your “normal” is actually “abnormal,” and you should see a doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Blood in your stool
  • Inability to have a bowel movement for seven to 10 days (this may actually be a “normal” for you, but you should talk to your doctor to be sure)
  • Being constipated, then having diarrhea, then experiencing the same cycle over and over, when there’s no obvious cause for these changes
  • Severe pain in the very end of your large intestine (the anus)
  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than a few days, especially when accompanied by vomiting

The most important way to be sure your colon is healthy, especially if you’re over the age of 50 and/or have a family history of colon disease, is to get a colonoscopy. Before and after the age of 50, there are many studies on how to avoid cancer of the colon or at least reduce your risk factors. However, one of the most frequently asked questions is: Does a colon detox work, and if so, how does it cleanse your colon? The answer is: We really don’t know. There haven’t been enough scientifically-broad studies on the effect of a colon cleanse.

  • Consult your doctor
  • Before using any of the following scientifically-studied suggestions, consult your doctor to see if any of your medical conditions would prohibit you from following these rules provided by the American Heart Association:
  • Eat fruits and vegetable that are high in fiber to help your colon move waste products out of your system. Two cups of fruit and three cups of vegetables is the recommended daily serving. Good sources of fruits and veggies with high fiber include (but aren’t limited to): artichokes, apples, pears (with skin), berries (blackberries, blueberries, raspberries), dates, figs, prunes, beans (baked, black, lima, pinto), broccoli, chick-peas, lentils, parsnips, peas, pumpkin, winter squash. This list was provided by American College of Gastroenterology.
  • Eat a lot of high-fiber grains (about three servings a day). Also, eat another three servings of quality grain products, such as pasta and oatmeal.
  • Eat two to three servings of low-fat dairy products, especially yogurt with an “active culture.” Active culture helps the natural bacteria in your digestive system do its job, and the calcium in the dairy products helps increase colon health.
  • Exercise (at least a brisk walk for 30 minutes five times a week). Interestingly enough, when we move our muscles, it helps our colon move waste products as well.
  • Lose weight, as needed.
  • Drink water! Lots of water.
  • Don’t use tobacco of any type.

     Maintaining good colon health is easy, and important, because not only can it help you avoid preventable colon issues, but the things that are good for your colon are also good for your heart, brain, kidneys, liver, skin, hair, and overall well-being. Keeping your colon healthy is really a one-size-fits-all recommendation for almost all bodily functions –  even those that aren’t as awkward to talk about.

Back to Newsletter