Are You Regular? How Diet and Exercise Affect Your Bowels
By Carolyn Richardson
Number two will do to explain the bodily function most people think about often, but rarely talk about. Bowel movements are not only necessary, but they explain a lot about your overall health. Dr. Amy Foxx-Orenstein, president of the American College of Gastroenterology, reveal the importance of a healthy gastro-intestinal tract, “The GI tract is a processing unit that metabolizes all of the nutrients you take in and eliminates all of the body’s waste.”
Normal bowel movements will vary from person to person and, depending on diet, can change over time with each individual. “There is no true ideal for how frequent your bowel movements should be,” Foxx-Orenstein says. But if you notice a marked change in frequency, take note. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), “Constipation is defined as having a bowel movement fewer than three times per week.” Along with difficulty eliminating, stools during constipation may be hard, dry, and small in size. Other indicators of constipation are straining and bloating.
What Diet Has to Do With It
“If you’re not eating enough fiber, not eating breakfast, or just not eating enough food, you may be constipated because your body’s not able to produce enough waste,” says Foxx-Orenstein. The NIDDK says people with a high-fiber diet are less likely to become constipated, but unfortunately many Americans don’t fall into this category. The National Center for Health Statistics reports, “Americans eat an average of 5 to 14 grams of fiber daily,” far short of the American Dietetic Association’s recommendation of 20 to 35 grams. Foods high in fiber include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. On the other hand, diets high in fats, such as cheese, eggs, and meats are indicated as a cause for constipation. What you drink is also important. While research shows that increasing fluid intake does not necessarily relieve constipation, liquids do add bulk to stools, making it easier for the pipe to start flowing again. However, steer clear of liquids that contain alcohol or caffeine, as these are not as hydrating as water and juices, and may aggravate symptoms of constipation.
Move Around to Get Things Moving
Exercise is vital to regular bowel movements. In fact, inactivity is thought to be a reason why older people may suffer from constipation more frequently. WebMD says that exercise cuts down on the time it takes food to move through the large intestine and offers the following advice about when to exercise to stave off constipation: “Wait an hour after a big meal before engaging in any rigorous physical activity.” In addition to walking for just 10 to 15 minutes a few times a day, they suggest stretching, yoga, and aerobic exercise such as jogging, swimming, or dancing as ways to keep the digestive tract healthy.
When to Call the Doctor
“An ideal stool looks like a torpedo—it should be large, soft, fluffy and easy to pass,” says Foxx-Orenstein. But problems with color, texture, and size may indicate a medical condition. Normal stool can come in a variety of colors, but a pale or gray hue may mean trouble in liver, pancreatic or digestive tract function. Also, unless you recently ate beets or red popsicles, bright red stools or blood-like spots or streaks in the stool are also cause for alarm. Black or tar-like stool could mean an increase in iron due to vitamin supplementation, but if you haven’t recently changed your iron intake, call your doctor to rule out other problems. Abnormally loose stools, if not the result of a sudden increase in fiber in the diet, could be caused by an infection, or virus, or, if your stool floats and is accompanied by a yellowish color and greasy consistency, could indicate celiac disease. Lastly, pencil thin stools could mean an obstruction in the GI tract, colon cancer, or its precursor, polyps in the colon. Additional conditions include Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). In any case, if you feel you may have a problem, don’t ignore it. Foxx--Orenstein says it best, “What comes through it is reflective of how well or how ill the body is.”
Are you regular? How has diet and exercise affected your bowels?