…And the RISKS of Both Infrequent and Frequent Bowel Movements
If you’ve never given your bowel movements a second thought, it’s probably a sign that your digestive process is running smoothly.
Because if you suddenly become irregular, or have the opposite problem with too frequent trips to the bathroom, you’ll be so uncomfortable that your bowel habits will probably be on your mind constantly — whether you like it or not.
So How Often Should You Have a Bowel Movement?
There is no number set in stone that can answer this question, because what’s “normal” for you may be quite different than it is for your spouse, your colleagues or your neighbor.
On average, many people have a bowel movement once or twice a day — and that’s normal. Others may go as many as three times a day, or a few as three times a week — and that’s also within the scope of “normal.” The key is to think about what’s normal for you and also to listen to your body. If you feel comfortable, the frequency of your bowel movements is probably fine, but if you are having any discomfort, or you notice a significant change in your bowel habits, you may want to discuss it with your doctor.
Infrequent Bowel Movements? What You Should Know…
If you have less than three bowel movements per week, or you have to strain and have difficulty passing stools (and they’re hard and dry when you do), you may be constipated. Most often, this is the result of dietary or schedule changes (such as travelling or not taking time to move your bowels when the mood strikes), and will resolve on its own. Among the top causes of infrequent bowel movements are:
- Not eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables (i.e. fiber)
- Not drinking enough water
- Not exercising
- Ignoring the urge to “go”
- Taking certain medications, including narcotics, diuretics, iron and calcium supplements, antacids, painkillers, blood pressure drugs, anti-seizure meds, and antidepressants
The biggest “risk” of constipation is that the longer the stool sits in your colon, the harder it will become and the more difficult it will be to pass.
That said, millions of people visit their doctors every year because constipation, when it strikes, can lead to bloating, discomfort and pain when you try to pass the stool. If you have constipation that is persistent and chronic, and you’ve already ruled out the common causes above, be aware that it’s sometimes a symptom of a more serious condition, such as:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Colorectal cancer
- Parkinson’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Underactive thyroid gland
Frequent Bowel Movements? What it Might Mean…
Generally, having more frequent bowel movements is not a cause for alarm, and often means you’ve made some healthy lifestyle changes, such as eating more produce, getting more exercise and drinking more water, all of which may make you more “regular.”
This is particularly true if your stools are also healthy — a healthy stool should be shaped like a brown torpedo and be soft and easy to pass. If you’re not sure if your stool is “normal,” or you’ve noticed some unusual characteristics — color, consistency, odor or otherwise — be sure to read What Your Stool is Telling You: 10 Health Dangers to Watch for in Your Feces.
If your bowel movements are unusually frequent (for you, although this generally means more than three times a day), or are loose, watery or come with a sense of urgency, it’s more likely that you’re suffering from diarrhea. Any persistent diarrhea deserves medical attention as it can quickly lead to serious dehydration, especially in children.
Most often, the cause is bacteria, parasites or viral infection (from contaminated food or water, for instance). This commonly includes:
- Norwalk virus
- Viral hepatitis
- E. coli
- Giardia lamblia
If an infectious agent is to blame, the frequent, watery stool is your body’s way of trying to rid your body of the toxins faster. Typically, diarrhea will resolve on its own within a day or two. However, if your stool is frequent and watery for a longer period, such as a month or more, it could be a sign of a medical problem such as:
- Celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Ulcerative colitis
- Lactose intolerance
- Medication side effect (especially antibiotics, antacids and NSAIDs)
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If you have frequent loose, watery bowel movements, often a sign of bacterial or parasitic infection in your stools, it’s likely you may also be suffering from related pain and inflammation elsewhere in your body.
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Written By: Updated: December 6,2012