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Although they’re not a topic for polite conversation, bowel problems are surprisingly common, and affect most of us at some stage of life. Here’s a handy guide to help you maintain healthy bowel habits.
When it comes to going to the toilet, definitions of ‘normal’ differ widely, and going to the loo anywhere from several times a day to several times a week is considered within the normal range. From the point of view of natural therapists, passing a bowel motion at least once every day is considered ideal.
Equally important is the ease with which you go to the toilet. If you experience any pain, straining or have to sit on the toilet for a long time, you’re suffering from constipation, and it’s time to review your dietary and lifestyle habits.
On the other hand, if you’re going to the toilet frequently, sometimes need to go urgently, or your bowel motions are watery or semi-liquid, you may need to consult a health professional to help determine the cause of your diarrhoea.
Stools are composed of water, indigestible fibre (and sometimes undigested foods, such as corn, peas and tomato skins), and bodily wastes such as old cells, bacteria, cholesterol, hormones and other compounds.
The most common causes of constipation include not eating enough fibre, not drinking enough fluid, inadequate exercise, and ignoring the urge to go. Travel and dietary changes can also influence bowel habits from time to time.
Some medical conditions can also contribute to delayed bowel emptying. Examples include depression, nerve problems affecting the bowel, certain genetic tendencies, and the use of iron supplements and some other medications. If these issues affect you, take steps to restore your bowel regularity, because the longer the faeces are held in the bowel, the more water is absorbed from them, making the stool dryer and more difficult to pass. At the same time, toxic compounds from the faeces can be reabsorbed back into the blood stream.
Restoring regularity is often achieved using a five-pronged approach:
Causes of diarrhoea include food poisoning and other infections, gastroenteritis, dietary changes, some medications, and bowel conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Some of these conditions can be serious and may impair your ability to absorb nutrients, so it’s vital that any ongoing or recurrent diarrhoea problem is professionally diagnosed and treated. Seek urgent medical attention if the diarrhoea is accompanied by vomiting, severe pain, if blood is present in the stool or if symptoms persist for more than 48 hours.
During and immediately after an acute episode of diarrhoea, stick to small quantities of light, easily digested food, and increase your fluid intake. The very young and the elderly can easily become dehydrated during diarrhoea, and in such cases it’s advisable to consume electrolyte replacement drinks. Raspberry leaf is traditionally used to assist relief of mild diarrhoea, due to its astringent properties.
Irritable bowel syndrome
IBS is a common ailment with symptoms that can include both constipation and diarrhoea (usually alternating), abdominal bloating, pain and flatulence. The pain can range from a dull ache to spasmodic, colicky pain and is often improved by passing wind or a bowel movement.
The causes of IBS are not fully understood, it may be due to abnormal functioning of the nerves in the wall of the large intestine interfering with peristaltic actions, or gut bacterial imbalance.
If you suspect you have IBS, talk to your GP in order to rule out any other medical problems, including dietary allergies or sensitivities (for example to gluten or dairy products).
Strategies to help relieve IBS symptoms include:
What your stools say about your health
Stools should be soft, but firm and easy to pass, light to dark brown in colour and banana shaped. Talk to your healthcare professional if your stools have any of the following characteristics, which may indicate dietary or health issues:
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