Bowel movements tell a story. What’s yours?
THE primary role of the digestive system is to extract nutrients from the food that we eat.
The process begins in your mouth, goes through your stomach, and ends with your trip to the bathroom.
The final stop in the movement of food through your digestive tract is called the bowel movement.
While it is not the kind of information to be discussed over dinner, observing the “end” results of this process can offer some valuable insight into your digestive health.
One of the most sensitive components in the human body is the digestive system.
It is easily upset by disease, emotional factors, changes in your diet, and even malfunctions in other parts of the body.
Disorders that can threaten your digestive health come in many forms.
They include: appendicitis, hernias of the abdominal wall, haemorrhoids, ulcerative colitis, gastritis and peptic ulcer, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and various types of cancers that affect the colorectal area, liver, stomach and bladder.
According to the National Cancer Registry, in 2007, cancers that affect the digestive system were among the most common types of cancer in Malaysia.
They include: colorectal cancer, which is the second most frequent cancer in both men and women, accounting for 14.6% and 10% of all cancer cases respectively; liver cancer, the sixth most frequent cancer in men (5.5%); and stomach cancer, named the eighth most frequent cancer in men, and the 10th most frequent cancer in women, accounting for 4.3% and 2.8% of all cases respectively.
Statistics by the Health Ministry showed that in 2012, digestive diseases ranked as the fifth highest cause of deaths, and the seventh principal cause of admissions in public hospitals.
Look before you flush …
Physical signs and symptoms are your body’s way of trying to alert you to any potential problems in your health, and can present as chronic and recurrent abdominal pain, dyspepsia, nausea and vomiting, gas and bloating, chest pain, rectal pain or bleeding, and changes in stools frequency and/or appearance.
Sudden or prolonged changes in your stools can be a sign of an underlying health condition. Monitoring your output can help you assess and address any health problems you may face.
Generally, healthy stools should not be loose, watery or bloody.
They should be about one to two inches in diameter, and cumulatively can go up to 18 inches long.
Sausage-shaped stools, which come from the shape of your lower intestine, are an indicator of good digestive health, while narrow, pencil-like or ribbon-like stools can indicate a bowel obstruction or a tumour.
Worse, it could be a sign of colon cancer, though infrequent episodes of ribbon-like stools are usually not alarming.
Stool colour: When to worry
The colour and condition of your stools are largely influenced by what you eat and the amount of bile (a yellow-green fluid that digests fats) in the stool.
Healthy stools are usually medium to light brown in colour, and are formed into a long, uniform shape with a smooth and soft surface.
Faecal features that may indicate digestive health problems include: if your stools are green (indicating that the digestion process is happening too quickly, sometimes causing diarrhoea), yellow (indicating the presence of excess fat and a possible sign of absorption problems), black (an indicator of bleeding in the upper digestive tract, but could also be due to foods such as iron supplements and black liquorice), or bright red (could indicate bleeding in the lower intestinal region).
White, pale or grey stools may indicate a lack of bile, which may suggest a serious problem such as hepatitis cirrhosis, pancreatic disorders, or a blocked bile duct.
What you eat can also have an effect in the colour and consistency of your stools.
For instance, eating beetroot may give you red stools.
Beets contain natural pigments that give them their vibrant and dark purple-red colour.
These pigments are not absorbed in your body, and often results in the drastic change of colour in your stools.
Constipation and diarrhoea
Frequency of bowel movements ranges from individual to individual.
Most people go once or twice a day, some go every other day, while others go as infrequently as once or twice a week.
As long as you feel comfortable, you don’t have to put too much thought into your bowel movement.
Constipation and diarrhoea are common digestive problems that disrupt regular bowel movement, and change the appearance of your stools.
Those who are constipated experience infrequent bowel movements, resulting in stools that are hard and dry, and look like separate lumps that resemble nuts.
Meanwhile, those who experience diarrhoea will pass loose and watery stools more frequently than usual. Their stools will look like soft blobs with clear-cut edges, fluffy pieces with ragged edges, or are entirely liquid with no solid pieces.
Constipation and diarrhoea are usually not serious, and can be addressed with over-the-counter medication, or changes in your lifestyle and diet.
Prevention is better than cure
Keep your bowel movements regular by adopting healthy eating habits and an active lifestyle.
Maintaining a daily dietary fibre intake of at least 20–30g will help ease the digestive process. Fibre is present in foods such as whole-grain cereals and breads, fresh vegetables, fruits and legumes.
Increasing your level of physical activity will help your digestive system to function optimally.
It is also important to maintain a physically active lifestyle, with at least 30 minutes of physical activity, for up to five days a week.
Exercising can help ease constipation by decreasing the time that food takes to move through the large intestines.
Last but not least, make sure your body is well-hydrated by drinking enough water. Drink at least eight glasses of water every day.
Adjust your liquid intake according to your activity level and the weather, such as drinking more if you are exercising and perspiring heavily, or if the weather is very hot and dry.
* Datin Dr Liew Yin Mei is a consultant physician and member of the Digestive Health Advisory Board. The author is not associated with and does not endorse any brands or products. For free digestive health info guides or more information, please contact 03-5621 1408.