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If there’s one thing we can all relate to as human beings, it’s going to the bathroom. It’s one of the basic bodily functions, next to breathing and sleeping, and something we all experience every day. In fact, going to the bathroom is one of the healthiest things we can do for our body because it’s all part of our digestive functioning.
One thing that stumps a lot of people when it comes to time spent in the bathroom is what is and isn’t considered “normal.” The truth is, normal sits on a broad spectrum when it comes to bowel movements. For instance, there are people who have a bowel movement three times a day and others who have a bowel movement every three days and both can be considered normal, according to Fola May, M.D., Ph.D., gastroenterologist, director of quality improvement in gastroenterology at UCLA, assistant professor of medicine at UCLA and Fight Colorectal Cancer board member. The most important determination for what is normal, she explains, is making sure that there are no concerning symptoms.
“Bowel movements should be soft — about the consistency of toothpaste — should not require a lot of pushing (straining) and should not feel incomplete, or as though you still have more to pass when you get up from the toilet,” she says. “In addition, any blood, mucus or pain when having a bowel movement warrants medical attention, as should very loose stools or not making it to the toilet in time.”
Not sure if your bathroom habits are considered normal? Here are six potential experiences you might have when it comes to your time spent in the bathroom and what each one might mean for your health.
1. Spending long periods of time on the toilet
Out of all the rooms in your home or office to spend significant time in, your bathroom shouldn’t be one of them — especially when you’re seated on the toilet. Whether you simply find your toilet time to be an opportunity to catch up on emails or social media or it takes you extended periods of time to pass bowel movements, spending long periods of time on the pot is a no-no, according to May.
“When we spend extended periods of time on the toilet bowl, there is a tendency to bear down, which increases the pressure in the rectum and anus,” she says. “Prolonged periods of downward pressure in this area of the body can contribute to the development of hemorrhoids and can weaken the pelvis muscles over time.”
What’s more: Our body actually becomes accustomed to these prolonged bowel movements, she warns, which can lead to more of this behavior over time. “A healthy poop should be easy in one to two minutes,” she says. “If you frequently have a lot of pushing/straining, pain, discomfort or the feeling that you need much longer, it is a great idea to speak with your provider about what might be causing it.”
2. Pushing or straining
If you’re having to push or strain with bowel movements or don’t feel like you’re completely finished after an extended amount of time, you may have issues with constipation, warns Andrew Moore, M.D., gastroenterologist in Chicago. “Constipation has a number of causes, but some of the most common are an inadequate amount of fiber in your diet, not drinking enough water and living a sedentary lifestyle,” he says.
Constipation is a bathroom habit that he recommends addressing because it can lead to unpleasant conditions such as hemorrhoids, which can cause bleeding and pain. “Try incorporating grains, cereals, fruits and vegetables to your diet and even adding soluble fiber in the form of over-the-counter supplements such as psyllium husk powder,” he says. He also recommends staying hydrated and getting in the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity each week, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
3. Hard, pellet-like stools
If you notice small, pellet-like stools, constipation may be to blame. If so, May recommends making an appointment with your primary-care provider to determine the root cause.
“In some cases, we do need to use medications to help regulate bowel movements,” she says. “In a very small number of cases, hard, pellet-like stools are a sign of something more concerning in the digestive system, which is why it is important to see your provider.”
4. Frequent or loose bowel movements
While going to the bathroom even up to three times a day is normal, if you notice you are moving your bowels more frequently than this or that they are looser than normal, it could pose a problem, according to Benjamin Hyatt, M.D., gastroenterologist at Middlesex Digestive Health & Endoscopy Center in Acton, Massachusetts. If this bowel frequency only occurs when you eat certain foods, it may be the result of a dietary intolerance, such as lactose (dairy).
“You can try to avoid dairy or other foods you think are bothering you, but if your symptoms continue or if you are not sure, you should ask your doctor,” he says.
Another potential cause is a gastrointestinal infection that could be accompanied by an abrupt onset of diarrhea, abdominal pain, or nausea and vomiting. “If this happens, you should try to stay hydrated with electrolyte solution drinks, and if your symptoms continue, you should see your doctor,” Hyatt adds.
5. Frequent changes in your bowel habits
If you find that you have frequent changes in your bowel habits, you may have irritable bowel syndrome or IBS, Moore warns. “This can also be associated with symptoms of gas and bloating and often abdominal pain that gets better with a bowel movement,” he says. “If you are experiencing these symptoms, you should be evaluated by a doctor who can provide appropriate diagnosis and management and rule out other causes of your symptoms.”
6. Blood in the stool
If you find blood in your stool, in the toilet bowl or on the toilet paper after wiping, you should take this very seriously, May warns.
“While it can be a sign of hemorrhoids, which are common and treatable, it can also be a sign of something more ominous happening in the colon or small bowel,” she says. “Anyone with blood in the stool should discuss the symptoms with their provider and, in many cases, should be referred to a gastroenterologist for a colonoscopy to determine the cause of the bleeding.”
No matter your bathroom habits, the American Cancer Society recommends colon cancer screenings for all Americans at average risk starting at age 45. If you have a family history of colon cancer or certain types of polyps, a history of inflammatory bowel disease, or have experienced radiation to your abdomen or pelvic area, you should be screened ever earlier.
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