Bowel habit varies among individuals. Some people may pass stool more often than others. However, the are defined limits to how often a person should have a bowel movement in order for it to be considered normal. This simply means a specific bowel movement frequency that does not fall into the category of diarrhea or constipation at either extreme. Apart from the bowel movement frequency, the consistency of stool and ability to pass it out are other factors that determine whether individual bowel habit is considered as diarrhea or constipation.
What is normal bowel movement frequency?
In order to define normal bowel movement frequency, it is important to first consider the alterations in bowel habit that are classified as diarrhea or constipation.
- Diarrhea is passing stool three times or more within a 24 hour period.
- Constipation is passing stool less than three times within a 7 day period.
Therefore normal bowel habit can be considered as passing stool less than three times daily but more than three times weekly. However, as mentioned the frequency of bowel movement is not the only factor. The consistency of stool is also important as outlined in the Bristol Stool Chart. Equally important is the ease of passing stool. In constipation a person has difficulty passing stool and often has to strain during a bowel movement.
Read more on bowel movement chart.
It is not uncommon to experience disruptions in bowel habit. Most of the time these disruptions are acute and last for a short period of time. For example, diarrhea may occur with an infection of the digestive tract like gastroenteritis which lasts for a few days. At other times the disruptions can persist or recur for long periods. For example people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may experience diarrhea regularly and sometimes constipation as well.
How To Maintain Bowel Movement Frequency
Stool is changed from a liquid into mush and then into a soft solid within the colon. Once the lower colon or the rectum fills with stool then a person has the urge to have a bowel movement. The stool is pushed out into the environment by the strong contractions of muscles in the walls of the colon and rectum.
While most of this process is not under voluntary control, diet and lifestyle can influence the consistency of the stools as well as help with making bowel movements more frequent and easier. Therefore these dietary and lifestyle factors need to be a part of everyday life in order to maintain bowel movement frequency and to prevent diarrhea or constipation.
Read more on easy bowel movements.
Fiber is one of the most important dietary factors in maintaining a normal bowel habit. It is abundant in fruits, vegetables and wholegrains. Fiber supplements can also be beneficial but daily intake as part of a regular diet should be maintained to prevent future disturbances in bowel movement frequency.
Fiber is indigestible so it remains in the gut. It absorbs water and helps to bulk up stool and keep stool soft. Both of these characteristics of fiber help to prevent and even treat constipation. Fiber also helps with binding the stool which is useful in diarrhea to some extent.
Fluid intake is another important part of maintaining normal frequency of bowel movements. Water is needed during the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients. Along with fiber, water provides bulk and keeps stool soft. This facilitates easier and more frequent bowel movements. At least 68oz (2 liters) of water should be consumed daily.
However, some fluids can be a problem. Alcoholic drinks and caffeinated beverages are the two types of drinks that should be avoided or consumed minimally. These substances, alcohol and caffeine, are diuretics. It causes the body to lose water through urine which means less water is released into the gut during the digestive process.
Physical activity is an important contributing factor regular bowel movements. Apart from its overall health benefits, physical activity also has specific benefits for the digestive tract. It assists with the movement of foods, wastes and feces through the bowels (bowel motility).
Any physical activity can be useful but a proper exercise program will ensure that the frequency of bowel movements is maintained. People who are sedentary are more likely to suffer with constipation. Physical activity ensures that food and stool does not stay in the gut for longer periods than normal, which could leads to dry and hard stools.
Apart from high fiber foods, a number of other foods can also impact on bowel movement frequency. Fresh fruit and vegetables should constitute a large part of the diet. Whole grains are equally important. Spicy and greasy foods may trigger frequent bowel movements and even diarrhea for one or two days.
However, there are some foods that can pose a problem. Processed foods which are a significant part of the modern diet are often low in fiber. In addition it may contain substances, like preservatives and other additives, which can disrupt the quantity of water in the bowels. Ultimtely it may lead to constipation or diarrhea on a chronic basis.
Laxatives and Antidiarrheals
Laxatives are a common option to stimulate bowel movements. It is often used by people with chronic constipation. There are many different types of laxatives – some soften the stool while other laxatives may add bulk to the stool and so on. Laxatives should be considered only for short periods of time when dietary and lifestyle remedies fail.
Antidiarrheals are drugs that slow down or even stop diarrhea altogether. It does not resolve the diarrhea completely but provides symptomatic relief for short periods of time. If used in large quantites for prolonged periods then it can lead to constipation. Other drugs like anesthetics and opioid painkillers may also slow down bowel motility.
The position that a person assumes during a bowel movement can also affect defecation. It may not alter the frequency of bowel movements but can help passing stool with ease. The ideal position is a crouching-like stance over the toilet seat rather than the sitting position which is common due to the shape of the modern toilet. In addition, training the bowels to pass stool at specific periods can also help with the bowel movement frequency.