By Vasudha Dhar, MD, Special to Everyday Health
As a gastroenterologist, I am somewhat surprised that people don’t pay more attention to their bathroom habits. While it’s not the most pleasant topic, there really is no easier way to discover what’s happening inside your body than seeing what comes out of it.
One of the biggest misconceptions about our bowel movements is the common belief there is an ideal result. A few years ago, a well-known doctor suggested that we should all strive to see a “perfect S” and that anything else could indicate some kind of problem.
After this announcement, my appointment calendar was booked solid for weeks. I explained to worried patients that, in fact, the famous doctor’s blanket statement was incorrect. Everyone’s GI tract operates differently based on a combination of constant and changing factors ─ genetics, hydration, dietary habits, medication use, and ongoing health issues.
Think about it ─ sometimes certain foods just don’t agree with you, and occasionally you don’t drink enough water. Or perhaps you are taking a new medication. These factors can change the consistency and caliber of your stool for a short time but things usually revert back to normal in a few days.
The frequency of bowel movements also varies. Not everyone is wired to have a bowel movement every day. Some people have one every few days while other people go more than once a day. Regardless, both are normal.
Changes in Bowel Habits
What’s important to be aware of is how your GI tract normally functions and what typical bowel activity is for you. If you notice a prolonged change, that’s when you need to closely monitor what’s happening. In addition, if you are feeling pain or other pronounced symptoms, it’s time to call your doctor.
Keep in mind, if your stool changes for a week or longer, it doesn’t necessarily mean the medical issue lies in your GI tract. Recently, I saw a female patient in her mid-forties who was concerned her stools had changed from regular to much looser consistency and the frequency had increased. She was also losing weight.
After running her blood work and conducting other diagnostic tests, we learned she had hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid), a condition where the thyroid gland produces too much of the thyroid hormone, which causes symptoms including accelerated metabolism (causing sudden weight loss), heart rate increase, sweating, and changes in bowel movements.
5 Signs of Bowel Trouble
The body has a way of expressing itself when there is trouble inside by changing your bowel movements. Here are five warning signs you shouldn’t ignore:
Blood in your stool. If you see even a small amount of blood in your feces on a recurring basis, see a doctor. Blood can be a sign of hemorrhoids or anal fissures, pre-cancerous colon polyps, or an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). In the worst case scenario, it could be a sign of cancer.
Change in stool consistency. Everyone has bouts of diarrhea from time to time. But if you used to have solid bowel movements and now have diarrhea frequently, it could be a sign of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, two types of IBD ─ especially if you also have abdominal pain, bleeding, and weight loss.
Color change. Bowel movements are generally brown in color because of bile, which is produced in the liver. If the stool is black, it can be a sign of internal bleeding. Green stool is usually nothing to be concerned about. Stool color also changes depending on the kinds of food you eat.
Continual diarrhea. Diarrhea can be sign of infection or food intolerance. Ulcerative colitis and some other microscopic colon disorders can cause changes in frequency of the stool as well. It can also be a result of a change of medications or irritable bowel disease.
Constipation. If you have a new onset of constipation, it can be due to lack of proper hydration or side effects from a medication. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may also be a consideration. If your symptoms don’t improve in a few days after an increase in fluids, see your doctor.
Better Lifestyle, Better Bowels
People who deal with chronic bathroom issues should be evaluated by a doctor. Most conditions can be treated with medication and lifestyle changes. Irritable bowel disease is one of the most common conditions affecting the large intestine (colon). It causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. It is a chronic condition that you will need to manage for the long-term with diet, exercise, stress management, and medication.
Most gastrointestinal problems can be resolved by making simple changes to your diet and lifestyle. For less severe cases, the following nutrition and exercise changes may prove helpful:
Eat unprocessed, natural foods including fiber-rich vegetables.
Avoid artificial sweeteners, fructose, chemical additives, MSG, excessive caffeine.
Boost your intestinal flora by adding naturally fermented foods to your diet ─ sauerkraut, pickles, and kefir, for example.
Add a probiotic supplement if you’re not getting enough good bacteria from your diet.
Strive to drink two quarts of water daily.
If you use medication every day, ask your prescribing doctor if it could be affecting your bowel movements.
Take action to minimize chronic stress.
Be sure to talk to your doctor before making any changes to your healthcare routine. Pay attention to your bowel movements the same way you watch your weight, get your blood pressure monitored, and have your heart rate evaluated. Your bathroom habits can offer warning signs that something may not be quite right, and that you need to be checked out by a medical professional.
Vasudha Dhar, MD, is a board-certified gastroenterologist on staff at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, New Jersey. She maintains a private medical practice and also serves as assistant professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University in New York City.