Bowel habit varies from person to person but is considered normal if bowel movements are between 3 times a day to 3 times a week. Passing stool more than 3 times a day is known as diarrhea while less than 3 bowel movements in a week is said to be constipation. Both diarrhea and constipation are symptoms and not diseases on its own. Regular bowel habit involves not only passing stool frequently but there should also feeling like the bowels are evacuated completely. It should not involve very hard stool or excessive straining to have a bowel movement.
Normal Bowel Habit
Movement of food and waste through the gut is known as gastrointestinal motility. It is a carefully coordinated process that pushes food through each segment by strong muscular contractions. As food enters each part of the gut, it causes the wall to stretch slightly and this triggers the muscles to contract thereby pushing it forward to the next segment. This process continues from the throat and esophagus all the way to the end of the large intestine. Hormones and nerve signals from the brain can also influence the gastrointestinal motility.
Once a large amount of wastes accumulate in the colon thereby stretching its walls, a person feels the urge to defecate. The stool fills in the rectum and the urge becomes more intense. When the setting is appropriate the voluntary and involuntary sphincters relax and the stool is expelled from the bowels. Although staying regular is largely dependent on the bulk within the bowels, it can also be influenced by time, exercise and even emotions.
A person who is accustomed to passing stool at a certain time will experience the urge to defecate at around the same time every day. Apart from the bulk within the colon, physical activity also affects bowel habit. Being more active regulates the bowels while a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to constipation. Emotions such as anxiety, fear and anger can also trigger a bowel movement or sometimes even suppress normal bowel habit.
Problems with Regular Bowels
Many people may not have regular bowel movements and pass stool infrequently, although not to the degree that it can be considered as constipation. Some of the reasons for this irregularity includes :
- Insufficient water intake.
- Not eating enough fiber.
- Being sedentary.
- Chronic diseases even if it is not related to the bowels.
- Side effects of certain medication.
However, age is another factor to consider. Apart from seniors being less active than younger adults, there are also age-related changes in the body that can contribute to sluggish bowels even in the absence of any disease.
When the irregularity reaches a point where a person passes stool less than 3 times in a week then it can be considered as constipation. However, the term constipation can also be ascribed to hard stool where there is severe straining to have a bowel movement. There may be incomplete emptying of the bowels when passing stool and a person may feel the urge to defecate afterwards despite not being able to do so.
Constipation in the elderly can occur for various additional reasons beyond the common causes.
Foods to Eat and Remedies
The cause of constipation or irregularity of the bowels needs to be diagnosed and treated where possible. If it is due to an underlying disease that is properly treated and managed, then the constipation may relieve. Medication should never be stopped without first speaking to a medical professional even if these drugs appear to be the cause of irregular bowel movements.
Even once the cause of constipation is treated and bowel movements commence, it may not be regular. Often the cause of irregularity is unknown yet it is not due to any disease. The term for this is functional constipation and there is no specific cure. However, certain diet and lifestyle factors can be helpful in maintaining regular bowel movements even if it is not as frequent as one would desire.
- Eat high fiber foods such as bran and crunchy vegetables daily.
- Drink about 2 liters (4 pints) of water or more in small quantities throughout the day.
- Avoid foods that tend to constipate, particularly processed foods, meat on its own and refined wheat products.
- Stay active as much as possible with at least 15 to 20 minutes of exercise at least twice a day.
- Control the calorie intake through foods in a bid to lose some weight as obesity slows down the bowel habit.
- Gently massaging the abdomen on a regular basis can help stimulate bowel movement.
- Train the bowels by sitting on the toilet at a specific time everyday. Always take the time to try to have a complete bowel movement rather than rushing through it.
Last Updated: March 20th, 2012 by