Understanding Bowel Movements: Brain-Gut Connection and Dietary Impact

Author: Yean Toh | Published date: August 1, 2023 | Category: Nutrition

Bowel movements

The term "bowel movement" is widely used to describe faecal elimination. Yet the bowels actually move in a wave-like series of contractions and relaxations, at a rate of 90 cycles per minute (1.5 cycles per second). This is within the spectrum of your brain waves.

Linking brain activity and mood to bowel movements

The brain and bowels are, in fact, closely linked and we now know that brain activity and mood can affect bowel movements. For example, anxiety and excitement increase bowel movements and cause stomach cramps, while depression causes constipation.
The physical movement of the intestines is an important part of digestion and nutrient assimilation, for it helps push the semi-digested and digested food along. Eventually, it pushes the faecal matter out. Some people lose this power to push out their waste matter and they experience "constipation" even though they do not have hard stools. This usually happens to older people who have lost their overall strength. However, it can also happen to people who take laxatives excessively. Laxatives relax the colon and the overuse of laxative may cause the colon to be chronically relaxed.

Foods that Promote Intestinal Motility

Certain foods can increase or decrease the motility - or spontaneous movement - of the intestines. These include:

  • Soluble fibres from fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and grains; 
  • Psyllium husk - When dissolved in water, psyllium husk becomes thick and gluey, like mucus. This is an adaptogenic fibre, meaning it helps you adapt and normalise your condition. It softens your stools if you are constipated and it reduces the frequency of bowel movements if you have loose stools;
  • Aloe vera - This is a cactus whose leaves consist of a gel inside the outer covering. This gel is widely used for skin care but it can also be eaten, whereby it stimulates the muscle of the colon to contract. It also improves the consistency of the stools. Aloe vera produces a soothing effect on the mucus lining of the digestive tract;
  • Magnesium - which is abundant in dark green vegetables, relaxes the muscles of the digestive tract and helps regulate its rhythm. It also acts as a laxative;
    Vitamin C in high doses (one to 4 grams daily) is an effective laxative.

Enhancing Digestive Tract Motility

To improve the motility of your digestive tract, first increase your daily fibre intake to about 30g daily. If that fails to move your system, add aloe vera and probiotics. Besides improving your bowel functions, these two products contribute to your nutritional health. Finally, try magnesium or high-dose vitamin C supplements.

Foods that Reduce Bowel Motility

Foods that reduce the motility of the digestive tract include:

  • Gluten - the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley;
  • Casein - a type of protein in cow's milk and dairy products;
  • Phytates - a class of anti-nutrients that block nutrient absorption. Phytates are especially abundant in soybeans - but not in fermented soy products, as they are neutralised through fermentation. This is a major reason why babies develop constipation when they are fed on soy formula.

This content is adapted, with permission, from Book 1 of 2 : The Wonders of Nutrition by Dr Ang Poon Liat. MBBS, M.MED (PAED), MRCP (UK PAED), FAMS, MD.



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