Importance of Regular and Proper Waste Elimination
If intestinal wastes are not regularly and properly eliminated, you can get quite sick. Generally, your food takes about 27 hours to pass through the entire digestive tract, from the time you eat to the time it gets eliminated as waste. This means you should have, on average, one bowel movement daily. Two or three times a day is not unusual, but more than that may be a cause for concern.
Likewise, there is no need to be concerned if occasionally you miss your daily bowel movement. But if you consistently do not clear your bowels, you will be accumulating toxic matter in your body and your health will inevitably suffer.
Half your faecal matter consists of dead microbes, while the population of live bacteria in your colon doubles every 24 hours. So any delay in waste evacuation will allow bacteria in the colon to ferment the waste matter, producing excessive gas and causing bloatedness.
The Role of Intestinal Flora and Probiotics
Inside your colon, soluble fibres that were previously not digested are now digested by probiotics into short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids lower the colon's pH balance, making its environment more acidic. This protects the colon against being dominated by one or more specific types of harmful microorganisms. Probiotics therefore help to balance the intestinal flora.
We now look at the different conditions related to bowel movements:
Understanding Diarrhoea and Its Causes
When digested food enters the colon, it is initially watery and this water is absorbed by the colon for the body's use. The colon therefore acts as a "water-balancing tank" providing a useful source of water during periods of dehydration.
Diarrhoea occurs when the contents of the colon are evacuated before the water gets absorbed. This may be necessary in an emergency situation, such as when you eat "poisoned" food and the body needs to clear out your digestive tract urgently.
However, if you regularly have diarrhoea or watery stools even in non-emergency situations, it means that your colon is not functioning well in absorbing water and nutrients. Although most nutrients would have been absorbed in the small intestines, small amounts are supposed to be absorbed by the colon as well.
Prolonged or chronic diarrhoea will therefore result in dehydration. Along with water, minerals also get eliminated. This is why diarrhoea makes us feel weak. When we experience diarrhoea, it is important to drink more water and also to replenish minerals by taking some natural salt, or salty foods made with natural salt. Refined salt will only replenish sodium, which is just one of over 80 minerals found in natural salt.
Causes and Remedies for Constipation
If you don't drink enough water, the colon will still absorb as much as it can, causing its contents to become hard and dry. This is a major cause of constipation.
The Role of Fiber in Bowel Movements
Another cause is a lack of fibre in the diet. Insoluble fibre gives bulk to the stools while soluble fibre helps retain water in the stools, making them softer. Without fibre, the stools tend to become compacted and hard. If you eat a high-fibre diet with plenty of whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruits, you will almost never experience constipation.
Insoluble Fiber and its Impact on Constipation
But although insoluble fibre helps bowel movement, it also makes waste evacuation a bigger task. Thus, some insoluble fibre is helpful but it is prudent to avoid excessive amounts, especially if you are constantly constipated. Children who are often constipated should be especially careful, as they are poor evacuators. When children eat more insoluble fibre, they leave more stools behind and this aggravates the constipation.
If you constantly get constipated, some of the hard and compacted stools will get stuck to the colon walls. They act as "cement", blocking the colon's normal function of absorbing water and nutrients, as well as eliminating toxic waste products from your body. Over time, the colon gets inflamed and deformed; colon function diminishes.
Exploring "Normal" Stools: Consistency and Appearance
While most people know about diarrhoea and constipation, the subject of "normal" stools is seldom discussed. What, exactly, is normal?
Normal stools have the consistency of a thick paste. They should be passed out in one or a few large pieces, rather than broken up into many small pieces. When you pass your stools into a toilet bowl containing water, they should glide gently into the water rather than fall in, make a splash and then sink to the bottom.
Detecting Abnormalities: Pencil-Thin Stools and Mucus
Normal stools should also be relatively thick, about an inch in diameter. Pencil-thin stools may indicate obstructions in the colon, possibly abnormal growths such as polyps or cancer. The stools should have a light coating of mucus, but "slimy" stools with excessive mucus indicate inflammation and other problems.
Sure, it is normal for your stools to smell. But the smell should not be overpowering. If you observe nature, the stools of animals do not have a strong, repulsive odour. If yours do, it means that they contain large amounts of rotten, toxic matter - which usually come from eating excessive amounts of meat. When meat is eaten, it rots but when plant foods are eaten, they ferment. And the smell of rot is more offensive than the smell of fermentation.
In nature, meat-eating animals like cats and dogs have relatively short digestive tracts equal to about three times the length of the body (the torso). So the meat they eat is quickly digested and passed out before they develop a strong rotten smell.
Humans, like plant-eating animals, have long digestive tracts of about 12 times the length of the body. This allows time for plant foods to ferment so that they can be better digested. The fermentation process also produces nutrients and probiotics. But a long digestive tract does not suit a high-meat diet.
Decoding Stool Colors and Their Health Implications
The colour of normal, healthy stools should be medium brown. People may pass out stools that range in colour from pale yellow to dark brown, as well as odd colours like green, blue, silver, red and black. These are all signs of poor health and a malfunctioning digestive system. If you consistently pass out stools with these colours, you should consult a doctor.
You should be particularly concerned about red stools that usually indicate the presence of fresh bleeding from the lower colon; and black stools that indicate the presence of bleeding farther up the colon, such that the blood turns black by the time it is passed out.
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.