Whether you’re experiencing temporary changes due to an infection such as salmonella or food poisoning, or severe, long-term changes from an underlying condition, understanding what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to your bowel habits is extremely important.
Let’s face it. Nobody likes talking about their bowel movements, especially when they’re inconsistent or irregular. Most people aren’t aware of what normal bowel habits look like since bowel movements can be a difficult subject to talk about with their general practitioner. While it can be tough to talk about, having abnormal bowel movements can be even tougher to deal with, and can often be a sign of a serious, underlying condition.
So, in order to learn more about what a healthy bowel habit looks like, and when you should see a doctor, let’s talk about poop.
What are Normal Bowel Habits?
Everyone’s bowel habits are different. They include how often you have a bowel movement, your ability to control your bowel movements, the consistency of your bowel movements, and the coloration of your bowel movements. All of these factors combine to form what’s known as your bowel habit.
While there is no set standard for what a ‘normal’ bowel habit looks like, there are many widely accepted spectrums of what is considered to be healthy. Typically, the ‘normal’ range of frequency of bowel movements is anywhere between three times a day to three times a week. The American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) defines constipation as having less than three bowel movements a week. The AGA also defines diarrhea as having three or more stools per day.
Not having a bowel movement every day is completely normal, and in most cases should not raise any concern. Conversely, having a bowel movement more than once a day is also normal.
Bowel movements should be soft and easy to pass and have a relatively normal, consistent coloration. While some people may have harder or softer stools than others, generally speaking, bowel movements should be solid and cohesively formed. Stool should also fall within the spectrum of brown coloration, however, some deviance is normal depending on the foods you eat.
Bowel habits can be tricky to understand. What someone may consider normal may not be for others, and changes to those habits can be different for everyone as well. Bowel habits can change depending on a variety of outside influences such as diet, exercise, and stress levels. Knowing what your bowel habits are can help you determine when to seek medical help, and possibly prevent future discomfort and pain.
What are Common Changes in Bowel Habits?
The term, “changes in bowel habits”, can be extremely vague, and almost certainly deliberate, as it is meant to cover a wide array of variants, which can make it difficult to describe in a singular definition. Changes in bowel habits can include a change in how frequently you have a bowel movement, the consistency of the bowel movements (i.e, constipation or diarrhea), your ability and control over bowel movements, or coloration of the stool.
All of these changes can be a sign that your body may be experiencing some type of distress and can be a warning sign for underlying conditions such as Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Signs that your bowel habit may be changing can include some of the following.
Changes to Stool Color
Changes in the coloration of your stool are often some of the most noticeable signs of an underlying condition or ailment. In most cases, slight changes to stool color are normal in many people, especially when it is an isolated incident or attributed to certain foods. However, there are certain changes to stool color that can point to a more serious problem.
Colors to watch out for can include some of the following.
- Black or grey—Black-colored stools can be caused by certain foods or medications, such as black licorice or iron supplements, but can also be a sign of internal bleeding somewhere in the gastrointestinal tract (GI).
- Blood in the stool—It’s important to note that blood in the stool is never normal, and you should always contact your doctor if you notice you are passing blood. Blood in the stool can be a sign of several conditions such as hemorrhoids, infections, or colon cancer.
- Red or maroon—Red or maroon-colored stool can also be a sign of bleeding somewhere in the GI tract, but can also be caused by inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Like other colorations, certain foods, especially those high in red dyes, can also cause stool to have a red tint.
- Pale colorations—Stool will almost always be a varying shade of brown. Pale or clay-colored stools are not normal, and should always be addressed. Pale stools can be a sign that your liver is not producing enough bile. If this occurs, the body has difficulty draining the bile from the liver, which gives stool its brown coloration.
- Green—Green-colored stool can indicate decreased colonic transit time, or the time it takes you to have a bowel movement and is often associated with constipation. Green coloration can also be associated with diet, particularly with diets high in leafy greens or iron.
As with any color change, most will be accompanied by other signs and symptoms such as recurring bouts of constipation or diarrhea, which can help rule out diet.
Changes in Stool Consistency
Stool should always be soft in consistency, and will typically be cohesively formed, meaning it stays together. If your bowel habit is normal, there shouldn’t be many variations in the consistency of your stool, however, it is completely normal to experience changes in stool consistency now and then. However, if the consistency of your stool changes for more than a few incidents, it may be time to talk with your doctor.
Changes in the consistency of your stool that you should watch out for can include some of the following.
- Watery or loose—Watery or loose stools are commonly associated with diarrhea and can be caused by many different conditions. These types of bowel movements are most often the result of a temporary ailment such as a virus or infection such as food poisoning, but can also be a sign of an underlying condition such as IBD or celiac disease.
- Mucus or other fluid
- Hard or dry, Hard stools can be caused by your colon absorbing too much water. When this happens, food travels slower through the colon which can lead to decreased colonic transit time, resulting in stools that are hard, dry, and difficult to pass. Hard or dry stools are most commonly associated with constipation.
What Causes Changes in Bowel Habits?
There are several conditions and disorders associated with changes in bowel habits, which can range from temporary infections to more serious, lasting ailments that can require medical attention. Understanding what can cause your bowel habits to change can be helpful when deciding on possible treatments or when seeking medical advice.
Below are some of the most common causes of changes to bowel habits, along with possible side effects and warning signs that can accompany them.
Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), that causes chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Crohn’s disease, unlike other IBD’s like ulcerative colitis, can occur at any point in the digestive tract, from the mouth to the anus, although the majority of cases of Crohn’s disease are found in the small intestine. Crohn’s disease can cause severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, intestinal obstruction, and has been linked to an increased risk of developing colorectal and small intestine cancers.
Roughly 750,000 people in the United States alone are diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Currently, Crohn’s disease has no known cure, although recent studies have shown potential for a new treatment that could prevent the need for surgery in serious cases of Crohn’s disease.
Symptoms of Crohn’s disease that can change your bowel habits will typically be linked to the frequency and control over your bowel movements. People with Crohn’s disease suffer from frequent diarrhea, and will often experience what is known as bowel incontinence, or the inability to control bowel movements.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome, IBS, is a very common gastrointestinal disorder that alters the way the large intestine functions. The exact cause of IBS is unknown, however, some scientists believe that it may be caused by a bowel infection or more complex causes such as complications within the nervous system.
IBS is different from IBD, in that it is not associated with inflammation or deterioration of the GI tract. It is most often described by doctors as a group of symptoms, rather than a disease, that persists for over six months. IBS occurs in about 10%-15% of Americans and is more commonly found in women, although studies are not sure what causes this.
Unlike IBD’s like Crohn’s, IBS does not increase your risk of colon cancer, and can often be managed by altering your diet and lifestyle.
Symptoms of IBS that can change your bowel habits can include constipation and diarrhea, bowel incontinence, or white mucus in your stool.
According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, ulcerative colitis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the large intestine, which is also classified as a type of IBD. Sometimes referred to as UC, ulcerative colitis affects the lining of the colon, which causes small sores called ulcers to form. These ulcers produce mucus, which can lead to severe abdominal pain and bowel incontinence.
Like many bowel disorders, UC has no known cause. Many scientists believe that an abnormal or irregular immune system to be the cause, while others attribute it to genetic or microbial factors. The majority of UC cases are diagnosed in individuals in their mid to late 30s. Both men and women are at equal risk of developing UC, which affects about 1 million Americans.
Symptoms of ulcerative colitis that can affect your bowel habits can include loose, watery stools, severe bowel incontinence, bloody stools, and persistent diarrhea.
Other Conditions That Can Change Your Bowel Habits
Numerous factors can affect your bowel habits, many of which can be signs of underlying conditions. Most conditions or ailments that can change your bowel habits will also present with other symptoms. Below are a few other conditions that can change your bowel habits.
- Celiac disease
- Thyroid disorders
- Infections (such as salmonella and food poisoning)
- Bowel cancer
- Laxative use
- Medication side effects
When to See a Doctor
The importance of understanding when to contact your doctor is extremely important. Only you know what’s normal for your body and what’s not. If you begin to notice changes in your bowel habits, or if you experience symptoms of serious underlying conditions that also coincide with changes in your bowel habits, you should consult with your doctor immediately.
Changes in bowel habits such as bloody stool, mucus in your stool, severe abdominal pain, or severe bowel incontinence are all symptoms that are not normal for anyone, and you should always contact your doctor if you experience them at any time.
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