Q & A Library
Bowel Movement Blues?
What do your bowel movements tell you about your health? I've heard that their appearance can yield valuable information, but I don't know what to look for.
Answer (Published 12/26/2011)
The process of elimination can tell you a lot about your general health. On average, it takes 40 to 45 hours for wastes from your food to make the trip through your gastrointestinal system and exit your body. The first thing you should know is that there is a wide range of normal when it comes to the frequency of bowel movements: every other day, once a day, twice, three times, are all normal habits of elimination. A change in your long-term pattern might mean something – but consider any recent changes in your diet before you start to worry.
Ideally, stool should be large, soft and easy to pass, but diet and some drugs affect digestive function and can cause changes. Blood pressure medications, opiates, antihistamines and antidepressants can slow transit time through the digestive tract. When this happens, stool tends to be harder and drier than usual. Dairy products sometimes can cause this, too, so it’s worth cutting back on your intake if you’re constipated.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases more than four million Americans have frequent constipation, accounting for 2.5 million physician visits a year. Medically speaking, constipation means having fewer than three bowel movements a week, with stools that are usually hard, dry, small and difficult to pass. The problem may be too little fiber in your diet, which you can remedy by making sure that you eat lots of vegetables, wheat bran, whole-grain breads and cereals and fruit. If you can’t get enough fiber from your diet, consider powdered psyllium, available at health food stores, as a supplemental source. Be sure you’re drinking plenty of water, getting daily exercise, avoiding caffeine and tobacco.
Changes in the appearance of your stool sometimes can signal health problems. If you develop any of the following, be sure to see your doctor:
Andrew Weil, M.D.
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