For years now, I've been on the hunt for an elusive thing called the "ghost poo."
The ghost poo is a bowel movement so perfect, you don't need any toilet paper afterwards.
It's taken me a long time – tracking my bowel habits, eating better foods, and getting enough water – to finally come close. In fact, I have an ongoing contest with one of my friends to see who can get the closest to experiencing a ghost poo.
It sounds off-putting to have a contest for such a thing, but healthy bowels are vital to your health and well-being.
And today, I want to talk about what happens when you can't go at all... when you're blocked up from constipation.
Constipation happens when you can't pass any stool or if it's painful to defecate. It can last for a few days or stretch on for weeks or months. Dehydration, not enough exercise, poor diet, and stress all contribute to occasional constipation.
Chronic constipation happens with more serious conditions like Parkinson's, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or even colon cancer.
Older folks have a higher risk of constipation, not just because they get less exercise, but also because they drink less water.
Also, certain medications can be a factor. Everything from opioid painkillers to blood-pressure drugs can cause constipation.
Here's the reason you need to pay attention to your bowels: Constipation isn't just uncomfortable... If left untreated, it can lead to serious problems.
An article published in Gastroenterology earlier this year pointed out that by simply looking at the bacteria in someone's colon, researchers could tell whether or not that person suffered from constipation. That's because constipation destroys our healthy gut bugs.
And earlier this month, researchers from the University of Tennessee and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs linked chronic constipation to higher risks for kidney disease.
Lead researcher Dr. Csaba Kovesdy explained that their research gave evidence for the theory that constipation's effect on the microbiome (your gut bacteria) triggers inflammation. That, in turn, leads to issues with your kidneys, among other things.
Everyone has a different definition of "normal" when it comes to how frequently they pass stool. Typical definitions include one to three times every day (on the high end) to only three times a week (on the low end). Any more or less than that is "abnormal," though you may experience variations on occasion.
A healthy stool should be easy to pass. It should look soft and be in longer pieces. Small, hard pieces that look like rocks are a symptom of constipation.
If you're concerned about your bowel habits, start keeping a food and feces diary.
Some of my co-workers like to log their meals and bowel movements using apps – like the mySymptoms app – on their phones, but a simple pen-and-paper diary works too. Be sure to include everything you eat and drink during the day as well. That way, if you're constipated, you can see if it's because you didn't drink enough or if maybe you had too many sweets the day before.
If you notice you're constipated, try some of my natural methods before going to the doctor. Here's...
1. Exercise. Getting up and active helps stool move through your system naturally. It stimulates blood flow to your colon as well. Plus, as I've written before, exercise is a great stress-buster. Remember that stress is a leading cause of constipation as well.
The National Institutes of Health recommend about 20 to 30 minutes a day to keep your bowels healthy. Try my favorite exercise – walking. And combine it with a few yoga sessions to get great stress relief as well.
2. Drink more water. Remaining hydrated helps keep stool from drying out and getting hard.
This is especially important for folks 65 and older. A study out of Penn State University demonstrated why older folks suffer more from dehydration. As we age, we lose the ability to feel thirsty... a key indicator for when we need to replenish fluids.
3. Eat soluble fiber. I've written about fiber before, but keep in mind that not all fiber is good for you...
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. You should cut back on insoluble fiber, especially if you have problems with your digestion. It leads to bloating and gas.
On the other hand, soluble fiber helps fight spikes in blood sugar. One study in theNew England Journal of Medicine demonstrated that people on a high-fiber diet (50 grams of fiber per day – the equivalent of 11 apples) had a 10% lower level of sugar in their blood compared with those on a moderate-fiber diet (24 grams a day – the equivalent of about five-and-a-half apples).
And the Joslin Diabetes Center, the leading source for diabetes research, adds that soluble fiber is what helps keep blood glucose under control.
4. Skip the fiber pills. As my researcher unfortunately learned, fiber supplements can actually increase constipation in some folks. Plus, they're dangerous...
A 2000 study from the Lancet found that people who took a common fiber supplement, psyllium, actually saw an increase in precancerous colon tissue – called polyps.
But here's the thing... getting fiber from whole foods does not have this effect. That's why I encourage folks to eat foods rich in soluble fiber like blueberries, oats, apples, oranges, onions, and beans.
- Prevention covers what your poop means.
- Something different: Do you know what's living on your ATM?