How to Have a Better Poop
They may not be pretty, but bowel movements are a (hopefully regular!) fact of life. Understanding how to optimize the process delivers vital health benefits.
THERE ARE MANY good reasons to improve your poops. For starters, maintaining a healthy bowel routine keeps your pelvic muscles fit and your time on the toilet brief. It helps prevent chronic constipation and diarrhea, along with secondary problems like hemorrhoids, tissue tears and unpredictable stools. Many of the lifestyle changes that promote defecation, such as eating fibre and getting exercise, also reduce your risk of colorectal cancer. Use our guide below to make your bowel movements the best they can be.
1. WHAT YOUR POO SAYS ABOUT YOU
KNOW YOUR TYPE
A stool scale developed at the University of Bristol, U.K., describes seven stool formations, from severe constipation (hard little lumps) to severe diarrhea (practically water). The ideal is type 3 or 4: sausage-like and S-shaped in the bowl, passed painlessly and without straining or spending too long on the toilet. If your poop is lower on the scale (trending towards constipation) or higher and looser, chances are that dietary changes and lifestyle strategies will help.
BELOW THE SURFACE
Poops that contain a lot of gas or are low in fibre may lack enough density to sink. Don’t be too alarmed by floaters, which aren’t generally a sign of disease. But if
you also see fat droplets in the toilet bowl that don’t flush away with the rest of your business, it could indicate a malabsorption disorder, like celiac disease, which needs investigation.
THE SMELL TEST
Frankly, stool stinks. The bad smell comes from short-chain fatty acids, a normal by-product created by the bacteria in your bowel as they ferment foods. The odour of your poop may also be influenced by various spices or marinades in your foods and the diversity of your gut bacteria. Stool will smell fouler than usual, however, if you’re excreting digested blood (which warrants a doctor’s visit) or infectious diarrhea (see your doc for this, too, if it’s severe or isn’t going away after three days), or if it contains an excess amount of malabsorbed fat.
Poop comes in almost as many colours as a box of crayons. Its hues and shades vary widely depending on what you’ve consumed, especially if you’ve eaten a lot of it, or if it contains food dyes. Blueberries and stout beer can darken the colour, and green vegetables can turn it more of a shamrock shade. Beets can make it look red. However, red can also signify bleeding, a symptom of cancer, inflammatory bowel disease or another problem. Black, tarry stool may mean you’re bleeding somewhere higher up, like the stomach.
It’s important to seek medical attention if you suspect bleeding. Same with very pale poop, which can be a sign of a bile duct problem. Some medications can temporarily change your stool colour, including iron supplements and Pepto-Bismol, which make it look black. It’s worth noting that fecal blood can be microscopic, so it may not be visible. “If you have a family history of colon cancer or you’re over the age of 50, ask your doctor about screening,” says Dr. Carlo Fallone, a gastroenterologist at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal.
WHAT’S THE FREQUENCY?
Is there such a thing as too many number twos? What about movements that make only rare appearances? “There’s a huge range of what’s considered normal,” says Dr. Dina Kao, a University of Alberta gastroenterologist. Some of us are on the throne three times a day, while others poop once every few days. There’s no need to worry about the frequency of your bowel movements if your stool appears normal and you feel well. But don’t dismiss symptoms like fever, pain or dehydration. “If there’s blood, any change in your usual pattern of bowel movements, or weight loss, or if you have any concerns, you should speak to your doctor,” says Fallone.
FACTS ABOUT FARTS
Flatulence is inevitable. The bacteria in your bowel naturally generate gases
as they ferment the bits of food your body can’t digest—and there’s only one way out. We tend to toot more frequently (or more pungently) depending on our diet, which is probably why some folks seem fartier than others. “Other than the inconvenience and embarrassment of it, it’s probably not due to anything serious,” says Dr. Geoffrey Turnbull, a gastroenterologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Nevertheless, you may be able to adjust your output with the dietary tweaks suggested below.
2. WHAT GOES IN MUST COME OUT
FOODS THAT MAKE US POOP
The high sorbitol content in dried fruits such as prunes, figs and dates acts as a natural laxative. So does flaxseed. Fresh pears and apples sometimes do the trick. Eating breakfast can increase your colon activity and trigger a bowel movement.
OUR FRIEND, FIBRE
Dietary fibre produces perfect poo. Because it isn’t digested, it bulks up and softens stool, making it easier to pass. According to Health Canada, most of us get just half of what we require (women should have 25 grams a day, and men 38). “If you’re eating whole grains, or about half your plate at each meal is fruits and vegetables, you’re likely meeting your needs,” says Whitney Hussain, a registered dietitian in Vancouver who specializes in gastrointestinal disorders. You can also choose cereals with added fibre. Psyllium is a popular supplement, but watch out for inulin, which triggers a sore stomach in some people. Hussain suggests adding fibre to your diet gradually to prevent gas and bloating. “Just have one serving of a higherfibre food, and slowly increase it each day. Spread the fibre throughout the day, rather than having it all at once.”
Without enough fluid, your stool will be dry and hard. Other signs that you
probably need more water—or other sources of fluid, such as milk, juice, soup and tea—include dry lips and mouth, dark urine and urinating fewer than four times a day. The ideal amount of hydration is different for everyone and depends on factors like your body size and activity level.
FOODS TO FORSAKE
Processed foods containing refined grain, such as white flour, may have a longer shelf life, but they won’t do you any favours in the fibre department. They’re also often higher in fat, a common constipation trigger. White rice, as opposed to its whole-grain brown counterpart, can be another culprit. Carbonated beverages may give you gas and bloating, as can certain foods like cabbage, onions and lentils. “For some individuals, drinking alcohol may cause gastrointestinal upset and loose stools,” Hussain adds. (Candies and diet drinks sweetened with sorbitol and other sugar alcohols, such as xylitol, can also have you running for the bathroom.)
DON’T BLAME CAFFEINE!
Many people report urgent bathroom visits after their morning brew, but both regular and decaffeinated coffee appear to have the same effect. The warmth could be playing a role in speeding up the system. Coffee also contains about 100 different compounds, one or more of which may trigger the production of stomach acid and the release of digestive hormones, and increase activity in the large intestine.
MIND YOUR MANNERS
How you eat is just as important as what you eat. Avoid gulping your food or drinking through a straw, which can cause you to swallow air and make you gassy. Same with talking a lot during a meal. Eat on schedule—postponing a meal or snack can give you bloating. Hussain has this tip: “Focus on your hunger cue, so when you’re feeling full, stop eating, rather than eating until you’re super stuffed.”
3. PHYSICS AND PHYSIOLOGY
You need to keep your body moving in order to keep your bowels moving. Regular physical activity, such as a brisk daily walk, can help prevent constipation. Overtraining is thought to cause bowel symptoms like flatulence and loose poops in some people, especially if they’re exercising intensely in a hot environment, but that’s rare. Want to reduce the risk of “runner’s diarrhea,” possibly caused by alterations in intestinal hormone levels and blood flow, and the bouncing of internal organs? Avoid ibuprofen, energy bars and coffee before running, and wear loose clothing that doesn’t constrict your abdomen.
ENCOURAGE CONTAINMENT Fecal incontinence—leakage of stool— can be prevented. In some cases, dietary changes to add more bulky fibre or reduce gas will help. If it’s caused by overstretched and weak muscles, a physiotherapist can show you pelvic floor exercises to strengthen them.
BOOST YOUR MICROBIOME
You share your gastrointestinal tract with about 100 trillion microbes, and that’s a good thing; a diverse ecosystem keeps you healthy. Some people take probiotic supplements to promote healthy bacteria, but these products typically contain only a handful of species. You’re more likely to encourage a diverse population— we’re talking thousands of species—by eating a variety of fibre-rich foods. Another way to build your bacteria: a fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) from a healthy person. This treatment helps people whose gut microbes have been wiped out after recurrent C. difficile infections, says Kao.
KEEP CALM AND CACA ON Stress has an impact on your poops. The gut literally has a mind of its own—it’s lined with millions of nerve cells that make up what’s known as the enteric nervous system—and it sends signals to the brain, and vice-versa. That’s why your feelings of anxiety can produce cramping and diarrhea. Conversely, research has found that psychological strategies to reduce stress can improve these bowel symptoms in people who have functional disorders like irritable bowel syndrome. Their brains are more sensitive to gut discomfort, and it’s heightened under stress.
OUR BODIES’ CHEMISTRY Hormone fluctuations also seem to affect your gut. About half of premenopausal women who aren’t on birth control get constipation or diarrhea depending on where they are in their monthly cycle. Hormones during pregnancy serve to relax muscle contractions. “It may be a factor in why a lot of women get constipation in their third trimester,” says Turnbull. Both men
and women experience hormonal shifts as we get older, thought to be a potential influence on the decreasing diversity and robustness of our microbiome as we age. Unfortunately, these bacterial changes may weaken immunity and lower protection from the cognitive effects of aging.
UNDERSTAND ADVERSE EFFECTS All kinds of drugs, from antidepressants to narcotics to blood pressure pills, list diarrhea or constipation among potential side effects. “If your medication is giving you bowel problems, talk to the doctor,” says Turnbull. “It’s probably best to try something else. With some medications you don’t have a lot of options, but there are often other drugs that can be used to offset the symptoms.”
TRY TO KEEP IT NATURAL
Before resorting to drugstore laxatives to relieve constipation, consider lifestyle improvements such as increasing your fluid and fibre intake, getting more exercise and avoiding foods that plug you up. “If this doesn’t work, laxatives may be necessary, such as psyllium supplementation, stool softeners or polyethylene glycol,” says Fallone. “In general, one wants to avoid prolonged use of agents that can damage the colon, such as senna products.” Senna, made from the leaves and fruit of a plant, stimulates bowel activity. But eventually it can prevent your system from doing its job naturally and shouldn’t be used for more than a few days.
4. A TOILET TUTORIAL
ASSUME THE RIGHT POSITION
To adopt the perfect pooping posture, lean forward with your knees higher than your hips and your elbows on your knees, and relax your belly. (If you’ve had recent hip surgery and are still using an elevated toilet seat, consult your doctor about when it’s safe to raise your knees.)
The bottom of the rectum has a muscle that wraps around like a slingshot, called the puborectalis. “When it shortens and contracts, it narrows the rectal opening and prevents stool from coming down,” says Gayle Hulme, a pelvic health physiotherapist in Calgary. “Putting the knees up allows for that muscle to relax and lengthen, and it opens the rectum.” Squat toilets may be uncommon in Canada, but toilet stools like Squatty Potty, TURBO Stool and Squat-N-Go can assist with getting those knees up. (An ordinary footrest can also help.)
DON’T PUSH IT
Avoid holding your breath and straining to poop. The pressure can overstretch muscles and weaken them, contribute to hemorrhoids and cause anal fissures. It can also close off your anus instead of allowing it to relax and
open. You may end up with constipation or more difficulty holding in your bowel movements.
STICK TO A SCHEDULE
Your colon has a sleep-wake cycle just like you do, and you can encourage a daily morning poop by eating a proper breakfast and giving yourself time to go. In general, try to answer the call of nature when it comes. The longer your stool sits in the large intestine, the more it dries out as water is absorbed. “You can make constipation worse by inhibiting the urge to go,” says Turnbull.
We poop more successfully when we’re feeling comfortable, as that’s when our anal muscles are more likely to relax. Go in a familiar environment if you can, and don’t rush the process. Give yourself a few minutes, if you need it, to release any tension. (If no poop is forthcoming, be prepared to walk away, so you’re not tempted to force the issue.)
BE KIND TO YOUR BEHIND
Your derrière is delicate. Too much wiping with paper can damage skin, causing it to itch, feel sore and bleed. If you tend to get irritation around the area, try cleaning with water and cotton pads instead of toilet paper (or use a wet wipe, as long as it doesn’t contain harsh chemicals). Rinse well and pat dry. You may get relief with a sitz bath—a shallow, warm bath for just your bum—after bowel movements. “Some foods, like coffee and citrus foods, tend to make
this irritation worse,” Turnbull notes.
AVOID VACATION CONSTIPATION
A different time zone can throw off your schedule, and unfamiliar menus and limited food choices may mess with your digestion. Even the microbial environment isn’t what you’re used to. Build a new bowel routine early by establishing set mealtimes in your itinerary. Remember to include fibre-rich fruits and veggies in your meals. On a long flight or train ride, get up and walk around to stimulate your system. And pack your prunes (or the dried fruit of your choice)!
ASTRONAUTS NORMALLY LEAVE THEIR POOP TO BURN UP IN THE ATMOSPHERE.BUT SCIENTISTS ARE WORKING ON A WAY TO RECYCLE IT FOR FOOD, USING MICROBES. WASTE NOT, WANT NOT!
THE U.K.’S FIRST BUS TO RUN ON POOPHIT THE ROAD IN BRISTOL IN 2014. THE “BIO-BUS” WASFUELLED BY BIOMETHANE FROM HUMAN AND FOOD WASTE.
ABOUT 12,000 KGS OF HUMAN POO IS DEPOSITED AT THE BASE CAMP OF MOUNT EVERESTEVERY YEAR.