It's a favourite subject for any seven-year-old, but for everyone else, talking about bowel movements is a pretty squeamish topic.
"It's kind of a taboo subject," says Dr. Christina Bjorndal, a naturopathic doctor with the Optimum Wellness Naturopathic Medical Clinic in Edmonton. After a certain age, no one seems to want to talk about their movements anymore, but by not doing so, we could be overlooking one of the best indicators of our health.
"You can learn so much about your body just by taking the time to look at your stool," Bjorndal says. "Don't wait until you get colon cancer before you clean up your bowel function. It's a completely preventable cancer – but it's also a deadly cancer."
Most people don't know what a healthy bowel movement should look like or how often they should have one. The result is that many people are constipated and don't even know it.
How do you know if your bowels are functioning properly? According to Bjorndal, a healthy movement occurs 12-18 hours after a regular-size meal. This is what doctors refer to as "transit time," or the time it takes food to move from the mouth, through the intestines and out the anus.
Want to test your transit time? Try the beet test: Eat a lot of beets, then see how long it is before your bowel movement is a dark, red colour. If it's 12 – 18 hours later, you have a healthy transit time.
What else does a healthy movement entail? Bjorndal says it should be in the shape of your colon, about the length of your forearm and in an s-shape. It should sink to the bottom of the toilet, be uniform in colour and be smooth with few fissures or crevasses. There should be no blood or mucous in your stool, and there should not be a strong, foul or offensive odour. A strong odour could indicate an imbalance in the flora or bacteria in your intestine.
Finally, it should be relatively easy to have a bowel movement. You shouldn't have to strain and it shouldn't hurt at all or be either too hard or too loose.
There are five major factors that cause constipation, Bjorndal says. They are diet, stress level, exercise, liver function and dysbiosis (microbial imbalances in the body). "I find if I address those areas for patients, generally their bowels improve," she says. "And the first three, diet, stress and exercise, all go together." Here are a few tips to help you improve your bowel function:
Eat right. Avoid constipating foods like pizza, ice cream, white bread, cheese, red meat, white flour and dairy products. Instead, choose leafy greens, fruit, whole grains (brown rice, millet, quinoa, etc.), beets and flaxseed oil, to name a few. And don't forget water – you should drink about half your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of filtered or spring water every day.
Optimize your digestion. Remember what your mother always told you: slow down and chew your food properly. Remember to eat in a relaxed atmosphere and drink liquids between meals rather than with meals. And, if you have ever had antibiotics, you may have an imbalance in your gut flora and could benefit by taking medicinal doses of probiotics.
Exercise daily. Whether it's walking, biking, swimming, dancing, running, yoga or Pilates, try to get some activity every day to help reduce stress and ensure your colon is functioning properly.
Don't ignore the call of nature. If you've got to go, go. Find the nearest bathroom when you have that urge to go. And try squatting, as it's the most natural position for elimination. Put a stool or chair in front of you to rest your feet on.
Relax! Stress is a major factor in constipation, so try to find some time to relax. Whether that's prayer, meditation, visualization or something else that helps you relax, just take some time to breathe and picture your digestive system working properly.
A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.