Bowel Movements What Is Your Colon Telling You
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Close up of a woman clutching her stomach in pain. A bathroom is out of focus in the background.

Most people don't like discussing issues with their bowel movements (BMs) or even thinking about them. But the condition of your fecal matter can reveal a lot about your colorectal and overall health—for example, a potential infection within your colon or, in the worst-case scenario, cancer.

That's why it's important to stay aware of any changes in your BMs, as well as follow the recommended screenings for colon cancer. Colonoscopy is an effective diagnostic method to determine what's happening if you are having concerning symptoms. Unfortunately, a lot of people in the United States do not get screened appropriately. If we can educate more people on the need to do this, we can prevent a lot of deaths from colorectal cancer.

The condition of the bowel movement can indicate a potential issue with your colon—an infection or, in the worst-case scenario, cancer. via @MedStarWHC @blbello
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The Discomfort of Constipation

Constipation is a frequent complaint in the general population.  It can mean different things to different people: stools may be too hard or too difficult to evacuate or too infrequent.  It's not optimal to have just one BM every three or four days or longer because this can lead to other issues. If your fecal matter is hard, dry, or difficult to pass, it may mean that you are:

  • Not eating a balanced diet including fiber
  • Dehydrated
  • Experiencing side effects of medications
  • Experiencing another underlying medical condition
  • Pregnant
  • Experiencing a colon issue that requires a doctor’s attention

Eating a high-fiber diet and drinking plenty of water can help prevent hemorrhoids, which often accompany constipation.

The Urgency of Diarrhea

Watery or loose fecal matter can indicate an issue with your diet. It could also mean that you may have:

  • An infection
  • A reaction to medication
  • A problem with your colon

If you find that you have a sense of urgency—needing to go to the bathroom right away—the consistency of your BMs may be too loose. Often patients with diarrhea or chronic diarrhea experience this sense of urgency.

The Effect of Narcotics, Medications, and Alcohol

Narcotics, as well as certain anti-hypertensive medications, can slow your bowels down.

On the other hand, a very common side effect from antibiotics is diarrhea. If you experience continuous or worsening diarrhea, let your doctor know. In addition, alcohol has been linked to different cancers including colon cancer.

Pelvic Floor Dysfunction

When the pelvic floor does not tighten or relax correctly, this can lead to pelvic floor dysfunction. Symptoms may include constipation, leakage of stool or urine, the feeling of having to pass multiple BMs in a short period, and the sensation of not being able to complete a BM.  Risk factors for a weak pelvic floor include:

  • Pregnancy and childbirth
  • Radiation
  • Obesity
  • Chronic constipation

Notice an Unusual Odor?

Sometimes a new, more foul-smelling odor, accompanied by an abnormal BM, may indicate that infection is present. Or it could signify an issue with your diet, immune reaction, or disease of the colon, stomach, or small intestine.

If unusual odors persist, talk with your doctor.

How Often Should I “Go”?

The number of times you have a BM during the day is greatly affected by the food you eat, particularly the amount of fiber you ingest. There is no clearly accepted number of BMs a person has to have. Most people have 1 or 2 BMs a day. On the other hand, having three soft movements a day could be normal for some people. If you feel like you're evacuating well, it's normal for you.

However, if you’re experiencing a single BM once every three or four days, or worse, a high-fiber diet and plenty of water can frequently help.

Any change in your stool that lasts more than a week may be concerning and you should consult your physician if this is the case.

The Wisdom Behind “An Apple a Day”... and Exercise

Your mother was right: eat your fruits and vegetables. They'll help protect you against colorectal cancer and allow you to have regular stools. I usually tell people about the benefits of high-fiber cereal, beans, salad, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and popcorn—all very good for you. Of course, a high-fiber diet also helps lower cholesterol, control blood sugar, and achieve blood levels which may translate to reducing risk of cardiovascular disease and all cancers.

And, although it's not well understood how, we know that exercise can help protect against colon cancer.  Exercise can help prevent obesity and diabetes, which are risk factors for colon cancer.  This likely results from some combination of how you ingest nutrients and how those nutrients are then metabolized during activity.

When to See a Doctor

If you’re having issues with bowel movements, consult your doctor to record a good history of your intake, environmental factors, and other risk factors.

Sometimes treatment involves screening for colorectal cancer, getting blood work or stool tests. Other times, if warranted, we may perform a colonoscopy.

Here at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, we’ll use all the tools at our disposal to help treat and beat the problem.

Our goal is always to help get you back to enjoying your normal life.

Concerned about your bowel movements?

Our specialists are here to help.

Call 202-644-9526 or  Request an Appointment

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