When it comes to our bowels — and their movements — we may not give them much thought. Of course, when things are not going well, we notice.
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However, bowel movements don’t just tell us about the health of our digestive system. This may sound strange, but signs of everything from diseases to stress may show up in your bathroom habits. The key is knowing what to look for — and what the signs may mean.
Here, colorectal surgeon Sarah Vogler, MD, offers five tips for healthy bowels:
1. Don’t ignore rectal bleeding
The first thing most people worry about when they have minor rectal bleeding is that they have a cancer. Of course, colon cancer is also a concern. But, Dr. Vogler says, it’s the cause of rectal bleeding only 1 to 2% of the time.
Two problems are usually responsible for blood on the paper, on the stool or in the toilet: hemorrhoids and anal fissures. The good news is that both problems are usually easy to fix.
2. Be careful not to be overzealous when you wipe
A lot of people assume they have hemorrhoids. May their bottoms itch and they feel extra skin down there as they wipe. Must be hemorrhoids, right?
So they treat themselves with medicated wipes or cream. And yet the “hemorrhoids” don’t go away — they itch even more.
Often, the problem is, ironically, being too clean. “What happens is a circular process,” Dr. Vogler says. “Filled with good intentions, you try to keep yourself scrupulously clean by using flushable wipes. But the unexpected result is that this leads to itching and the feeling that you have hemorrhoids.”
3. Don’t treat the bathroom like a library
Think of your time in the bathroom as a necessity, not an extended escape. If your toilet has stacks of magazines or books on the water tank, Dr. Vogler says you should consider moving them to another room.
Why? “The more time you spend on the toilet, the more likely you will strain for bowel movements,” Dr. Vogler says. “Also, the seated position puts extra stress on your anal blood vessels. Both of these factors boost your risk of hemorrhoids.”
4. Watch your fiber intake
Everyone responds differently to fiber intake. In most people, daily fiber intake helps to keep stools soft and bowel habits regular. Raw fruits and vegetables are a great source of fiber.
However, Dr. Vogler says, some people actually notice worsening of their bowel symptoms when eating foods that are high in fiber. “If you are someone that notices abdominal bloating, gas pain or more difficulty in passing stools when eating fiber, then you should consider only eating small portion of fiber,” she says. Over-the-counter stools softeners can be taken daily to help regulate bowel habits if fiber doesn’t work well.
Each person’s needs are different, too, so you have to find what works best for your body.
5. Avoid dehydration if you have diarrhea
The biggest danger with a short bout of diarrhea is dehydration, or the loss of water and nutrients from the body’s tissues. You could become dehydrated if you have diarrhea more than three times a day and are not drinking enough fluids, Dr. Vogler says. Dehydration can cause serious complications if it is not treated.
The best way to guard against dehydration is to drink liquids that contain both salt and sugar.