People, let's talk about your poop schedule. Are you someone who goes like clockwork? Or are you more the type who has no idea if or when the urge to go will greet you?
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First thing to know: Gastroenterologists consider normal bowel movement (BM) frequency to be anywhere in the realm of three times a week to several times a day, says Baldeep S. Pabla, MD, gastroenterologist and assistant professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
Secondly, your body is actually programmed to want to go in the morning, and if you take advantage of that opportunity, you can get yourself into a routine.
Why is the a.m. prime time? "During sleep, colon motility generally stops," Dr. Pabla says.
That's overwhelmingly good news — no one wants to poop themselves in the night. But after you wake up, things start moving again, and stimulating waves from the colon tell your body: "time to move stool to the top of the rectum!" Once there, the rectum senses that "there's stool here!" and your brain tells you it's time to head to the toilet.
Other things help this along, including the gastrocolic reflex: Eating sends food to your stomach, and as your stomach stretches, hormones are released that signal the colon to squeeze and move things out, Dr. Pabla explains.
There's merit to maintaining a schedule.
"Pooping routinely makes way for more food for your body and decreases bloating, constipation and other GI symptoms that occur when you're retaining stool," Dr. Pabla says.
The good news is that if you want to include "have a BM" on your morning list of to-dos, there are ways you can train yourself to get there, says Amar Naik, MD, a gastroenterologist and director of the IBD Program at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago.
1. Figure Out What's Already Working for You (or Not)
If you have no idea when you're really going, then — pro gastro tip — keep a stool diary. Yep, write down when and what you're eating, and when you're having a BM.
Monitoring yourself this way for a few weeks can help you connect the dots on how your lifestyle and habits play into regularity. You may also notice that a recent change in your diet (the amount of fruit or veggies you're eating, added fiber, eating only at certain times) has made your BMs go haywire.
2. Listen to the Urge
When you get the "gotta go" feeling, then go to the bathroom. It may sound simple, but with our busy lifestyles, it can be easy to ignore or delay your trip to the toilet — don't.
"Listening to the urge helps maintain a normal stooling pattern," Dr. Pabla says.
3. Give Yourself Time in the A.M.
This is one of the best things you can do. Because if you're rushing out the door, into the car or to a place where you don't feel comfortable having a BM, you might, in fact, ignore the urge to go.
Make it part of your morning routine and give yourself the time and space to go if your body needs to.
4. If You Don't Succeed, Try Again Tomorrow
Go to the bathroom and see if you can go. But don't sit there for a half hour on your phone — that can cause straining that can create problems.
"If you can't go, get up and do something else," Dr. Naik says.
5. Eat Breakfast
You might skip breakfast because you're not hungry in the morning, are following intermittent fasting and eating later or don't really love breakfast foods. But if you want to get onto a morning poop schedule, eating only helps because it triggers that gastrocolic reflex.
What you eat matters, too. "Higher-fat foods tend to activate colon contractions more than higher-protein and carbohydrate foods," Dr. Pabla says.
6. Maintain a Healthy Diet
This means drinking enough fluids and eating enough fiber, as both are components of healthy stools.
Aim for between 91 and 125 ounces of water a day (that's about 11 to 16 cups), per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Water intake includes fluids and water-rich foods (like fruits and vegetables).
Also important is watching your fiber intake, especially if you're dealing with constipation. Adults ages 50 and younger should get between 25 and 38 grams a day, while older adults should get 21 to 30 grams, according to the Mayo Clinic. Good sources of fiber include fruits, veggies, beans and whole grains like barley and bulgur.
7. Know When to Call Your Doctor
Honestly, your bathroom habits are pretty cool — they give you a peek into what could be going on with your health. And your poop will send you some pretty clear alarm signals when things are off.
Call your doctor for any presence of blood (every time, but especially if you have a family history of colon cancer) or drastic changes in your BMs. For example, now you have constipation when you were regular before, or you're experiencing a bout of diarrhea.
A few days of BMs gone haywire can be caused by stuff going on in your life, like stress, traveling, a change in diet, lack of sleep or an infection, Dr. Naik says, but if that change has lingered for two or three weeks, then you may need to be evaluated.