Are you constipated or just irregular? Learn about constipation and the steps you can take to promote healthy bowel movements. Everyone has his or her own pattern of “regularity” – it might be every day, or it might be three times a week
I’ve seen literally hundreds of clients in my career, and while I can’t claim to remember every single one, there are a few I’m not likely to soon forget.
Mr. M was a short, slightly built, elderly gentleman who came to my office each week wearing the same plaid sport coat, bowtie and hat. He complained that his bowels weren’t working properly. And to prove his point, he’d pull from his pocket a spreadsheet – with full details of everything he’d ‘expelled’ the previous week. Mrs. R had similar concerns… but instead of a spreadsheet, she brought me pictures.
Truth be told, this was just fine with me, because what these clients were trying to tell me was that they had questions about whether or not they were ‘normal’ – and they were looking to me to provide some answers.
When I ask clients about their bowel function, most of them will tell me everything is fine. But plenty of them do say that they’re ‘irregular’ or they’re ‘constipated’. So it’s worth asking what really defines ‘regularity’ or ‘constipation’. Is twice a day too much? Is twice a week too infrequent?
Here’s the lowdown. The majority of people think that anything other than a daily bowel movement is just plain wrong. If they go every other day – even if it’s a ‘smooth move’ – they’ll say they’re constipated. The thing is, constipation isn’t just about how often you go (or not) – it also has to do with how difficult it is for you to get the job done.
If you’re healthy, constipation is usually suspected if you’ve gone three days or more without a bowel movement. By that time, enough water has been absorbed from the waste material in your gut that it’s likely to be hard and compact – and, therefore, difficult to pass. But three or more days isn’t a hard and fast rule for defining constipation – you could have difficulty going after only two days, too. On the other hand, there are those who routinely ‘go’ only twice a week – with no difficulty whatsoever – and, rather than calling them constipated, we’d say they’re ‘regular’.
That’s because the range of ‘regularity’ among healthy people is huge – anywhere from three movements a day to three a week. Even though some people’s bowels move like clockwork, most people don’t go at the same time every day, or even with the same frequency day in and day out. That makes sense if you think about it – you don’t eat exactly the same foods every day, or at the same time. Things like diet, exercise, hydration, stress, travel and medications can all affect how quickly or slowly waste material travels through your system.
Even though there’s a wide range of what we call ‘regularity’, the strategies for promoting healthy bowel movements are really the same for everyone. Include plenty of high fiber fruits, veggies and whole grains in your diet, drink plenty of fluids, and get regular exercise.
And when nature calls, be sure to listen. People often put off visits to the restroom – they’ll say they’re too busy and can’t take the time just then. Yes, the urge often passes if you ignore it – but the longer you wait, the less likely it is that you’ll have a ‘smooth move’.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife. Herbalife markets products for digestive health and digestive cleansing.