You go into the bathroom, smartphone in hand, ready to catch up on the election coverage while taking care of your business. But how long should you really have to sit on the toilet to do it?
It may not be the most pleasant thing to think about today, but come on, you know you've always wondered.
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First, let's talk about the time it takes to actually, physically go: "Studies on mammals have shown that the average bowel movement is around 12 seconds," says Niket Sonpal, MD, an internist and gastroenterologist in New York City.
The research he's referring to, published in the journal Soft Matter in 2017, looked at animals in a zoo. They produce cylindrical stool much like humans, and the time of transit didn't differ based on the size of the mammal. For instance, cats and elephants both took about 12 seconds to poop. Share that interesting nugget of info with your friends.
But how long should you be sitting on the toilet before it happens? After all, lingering too long could actually (and counterintuitively) put you at risk for problems like constipation.
Dr. Sonpal says it should take no more than five to 10 minutes to go to the bathroom. "There should be minimal straining, if any," he says.
Why You Go When You Go
The brain-gut connection here is something we have to talk about.
"The choreography of having a bowel movement is really amazing, and a lot of things have to occur in sequence for it to happen," says Michael D. Brown, MD, gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Thanks to the body's natural biorhythms, people (who are on a regular schedule) are usually struck with the urge to poop around 8 or 8:30 in the morning, Dr. Brown says.
There's a strong line of communication between your rectal vault and anal canal with your brain; essentially, your GI system is constantly updating your brain about how much stool is in there. Your brain fires back with info of its own about whether it's an appropriate time to go. (For instance: Are you in your car or at home? Or, would you be forced to use a public bathroom when you're scared of going in one because of COVID-19?)
"The choreography of having a bowel movement is really amazing, and a lot of things have to occur in sequence for it to happen."
What's more, after breakfast, your stomach tells your colon "more stuff is coming, make room!", encouraging things to move along, says Dr. Brown. And there's the fact that overnight, stool builds up in your colon. Together, that all plays into when you get the urge and why that urge is especially strong early in the morning, he says.
Here's why that matters: Heed that "gotta go" feeling (and be prepared for that 8 a.m. urge) and you shouldn't be holed up in the bathroom for very long.
"When you ignore the desire — you're too busy, running late or don't give yourself ample time in the morning — you can block that urge. That's called withholding, and that can cause a problem with constipation," Dr. Brown says.
What if It Takes You a Long Time to Go?
Maybe you're sitting there right now, as you read this, trying to make something happen.
If nothing's coming out and you're struggling, Dr. Sonpal recommends standing up and trying again later.
"Spending more than 15 minutes on the toilet can lead to hemorrhoids — swollen and inflamed veins in the rectum and anus that cause discomfort and bleeding," he says.
Maybe you just didn't need to go at that time, but consider what else could be going on. Straining may also indicate that your diet lacks fiber, which bulks up your stool and keeps you regular, Dr. Sonpal says.
Men ages 50 and younger should aim for 38 grams of fiber daily, while women of the same age should get 25 grams per day, according to the Mayo Clinic (that changes to 30 and 21 grams after 50, respectively).
Stress is another possible culprit.
"When the body is under stress, peristalsis (muscle contractions that move food through your digestive tract) is reduced, preventing you from going to the bathroom," explains Dr. Sonpal.
It's worth examining if you're managing the stress in your day in a healthy way. If the answer is no, this may be one way your body is telling you to slow down and take care of yourself.
And then, there also may be health problems at play. When you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) with constipation, you may have a sense of constipation, bloating and incomplete BMs, Dr. Brown says.
If you feel as if you haven't finished your business, you might be more apt to spend extra time in the bathroom to make it happen. However, the way stool moves through your system — its transit time — isn't to blame. In these folks, enhanced nerve sensitivity in the colon and small bowel may be responsible for the discomfort, not extra stool and gas.
The problem may also be a disorder dubbed "slow transit constipation." This is when material hangs out in your colon for too long, becoming more impacted and dried out, making you strain on the toilet. When you finally do go, you only get out a small fraction — 20 to 30 percent, says Dr. Brown — of the amount in your colon because your stool is hard and difficult to move. BMs may be infrequent, too.
Pelvic floor dysfunction can also lead to constipation, and female patients may sit at the toilet for an hour and then get up unsatisfied, Dr. Brown says.
If you're struggling with constipation often, talk to your doctor to see if one of the above causes might be to blame.
What if You’re Rushing to the Bathroom?
If you can barely make it to the toilet before you go, it's likely diarrhea, says Dr. Sonpal, which can be caused by things like drinking too much coffee, diet, exercise or menstruation. You may also be ill with a virus, aka a "stomach bug."
IBS can also take the form of diarrhea. (The symptoms of IBS can alternate between constipation and diarrhea, according to the Office on Women's Health.) In this instance, your rectum isn't actually filled with a lot of stool, but it sends a strong signal to your brain that you need to go now, says Dr. Brown.
"The urgency is frustrating, and not much comes out," he explains.
When to Seek Help
If you have your own BM rhythm and it's not causing you discomfort or problems, you're probably OK.
New changes — as in, now you're running to the bathroom to go or have been experiencing constipation despite lifestyle changes like eating more fiber and reducing stress — should tip you off to contact your doctor.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.