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How should my bowels function with a healthy digestive system


As a Nutritionist, I hear a great deal about people’s bowels and am often asked what is considered to be normal in terms of bowel movements. Do you know how your bowels should look and what is considered ‘healthy’? When two or three meals are being eaten daily, the bowel should move at least once or twice a day. If this shocks you, then read on!

Digestion primarily begins in the mouth; the more we chew our food the more saliva is produced which contains digestive enzymes aiding in breaking food down. If food is not chewed properly, it will not be chewed anywhere else and food that is not broken down is likely to cause abdominal discomfort down the line. Next, food enters the stomach, where stomach acids further break food. Production of the digestive juices stimulates the rest of the digestive tract to produce digestive enzymes. Next, the contents enter the small intestine, where nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream; carbohydrates, proteins and fats are digested by digestive enzymes, as well as vitamins, minerals, fats, amino acids and monosaccharides. The small intestine meets the large intestine; bacteria in the large bowel ferment and break down remaining substances. Water is removed and the remaining faeces are temporarily stored in the rectum before it is removed from the body via the anus.

The longer bowel contents stay in the colon, more water is absorbed and stool becomes harder and drier. These dry compacted faeces make the bowel difficult to move along, so the bowel becomes slower and less effective as peristalsis is slower. Waste products that are left sitting in the colon dry out and breed germs and produce toxins. Did you know that diarrhoea is caused by long term constipation; this is because the gut walls become inflamed by wastes and new food further inflames the wall. On the other hand, when the intestinal contents are moist and bulky, they fill the space inside the bowel, pressing on the wall which sends your brain a message that the bowels need to evacuate.

Bowel regularity may differ within individuals. A ‘normal’ bowel movement can be between three times a day to four times a week. The bowel usually wants to empty about 30 minutes following a meal, normally after breakfast. This makes going to the bathroom once a day the most ideal scenario for healthy bowel function. Other signs of a healthy bowel movement include passing stool within a minute or so of sitting on the toilet, pass without pain and straining and feel like you have completely emptied your bowel when you finish a motion so that you are not back in the toilet soon after to pass more.

A bowel movement should ideally be soft, formed and easy to pass; on the Bristol Stool Chart, type 3 and type 4 are considered healthy. If the stool consists of hard lumps or is sausage-shaped but lumpy and hard to pass it could indicate constipation. On the other hand, watery, mushy stools that are lacking form may indicate diarrhoea and urgency. Stools should be medium to light brown in colour; black tarry or red stools may indicate bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. Pale or grey stools show lack of bile, which may suggest issues within the liver or pancreas. Yellow stools show signs of an infection, gallbladder problems or malabsorption of fats and proteins (if you have any of these signs, seek medical attention).

The gut-brain axis can impact how our bowels function and therefore it is recommended to take actions towards reducing stress; ongoing stress can result in constipation or diarrhoea, which can affect other aspects of life.

What we eat plays an important role in the health of our bowels; consume whole foods, particularly fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains. Supplementing with slippery elm, psyllium husks, chia seeds, ground linseeds and prebiotic fibres can help by work by bulking up the stool. Avoid processed foods as they are usually low in fibre and high in fats, which can impair bowel function. Drinking adequate amounts of water throughout the day helps too!

Beneficial bacteria in the gut such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus spp are integral to having healthy movements. If you suffer from loose bowel movements probiotics have been proven to clear this up quickly, Saccharomyces boullardii being especially effective.

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