What your bowel movements are telling you about your health and well being

Dec 12, 2023
Your bowel movements can tell you a lot about your health as you age. Source: Getty Images.

While it’s not a topic many of us jump at the chance to talk about, our bathroom habits are something we need to take notice of as we age.

Our toilet habits can indicate an array of serious health problems and knowing what to look out for in the bathroom can put your mind at ease or indicate whether there’s a problem that needs investigating. While many aspects of life and health change as we get older, bowel habits typically don’t and this is one of the key factors to pay attention to.

“If your bowel habit has been normal for a long time and it changes without there being an obvious cause for it, that’s an indication to do some investigations,” Professor Terry Bolin, Founder of The Gut Foundation, tells Starts at 60.

Everyone’s bowel movements are different and while there’s no golden rule for how often people should pass a stool, most people have bowel movements at least once a day. In others, two times a day is normal, while some will only go to the bathroom once every two or three days. Individuals will know what’s normal for them but if it suddenly increases or decreases and there’s no obvious cause, it’s best to speak to a GP.

It’s also important to pay attention to how easy it is to pass a stool. Going to the toilet shouldn’t require straining or be painful and bowel movement should occur within a minute of sitting on the toilet. Faeces should also be able to be passed in one sitting without having to run back to the toilet shortly after.

Similar to how regularly people use the bathroom, what our poo looks like can also be an indicator of how healthy or unhealthy the gut is. One particularly useful chart is the Bristol Stool Scale – which classifies stools into seven categories.

Faeces that look like type 3 and type 4 are considered normal, while type 1 and type 2 can indicate constipation and types 5 to 7 can point to diarrhoea.

What does your poo say about you? The Bristol Stool Chart is a great tool to know what's normal and what's not.
What does your poo say about you? The Bristol Stool Chart is a great tool to know what’s normal and what’s not. Source: WikiCommons

Pebbly stools may be an indicator of diverticular disease – a common condition where small bulges develop in the large intestine. Bacteria can become trapped in these bulges and cause an array of symptoms such as constipation and diarrhoea. Low-fibre diets may be recommended in these cases and medication may be prescribed to treat the issue.

A change in diet can also trigger different bowel movements so if fibre has been increased or decreased or a person has introduced new foods or drinks to their diet, this could be the source of the issue. Additionally, constipation or diarrhoea can be a side effect of medications such as antibiotics, iron tablets and antidepressants.

“If you’ve started a new medication, that’s where you should start looking first,” Bolin says.

In other cases, changes in our poo can indicate more serious issues such as bowel cancer. The risk of bowel cancer increases after the age of 50 and changes in your bowel movements or stools shouldn’t be ignored.

“If they have no other symptoms and there’s no family history or they have been investigated [through screening], then that probably largely excludes – not entirely – things like bowel cancer,” Bolin says.

“If you have pain or bloating and particularly blood, you obviously have to be investigated.”

Sudden bouts of diarrhoea or constipation may also be caused by infections in the bowel. In these cases, it’s best to seek professional advice from a GP. Changes in bowel movement can point to a number of different issues and generic over-the-counter medications or treatments won’t work for all issues.

“I’m not a great fan of taking things unless there’s a real indication,” Bolin says.

“Just because your neighbour says, ‘Oh, I did well on this or that’ is not a reason for you to go and try it.”

Instead, a GP will conduct a proper analysis, prescribe treatments or diet changes and if required, refer patients to a specialist.

This article was originally published on June 10, 2019, and was updated on December 12, 2023.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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