Opening our bowels is something we all do, yet until recently it’s been a bit of a taboo subject.
Luckily that seems to be changing, not least because of growing awareness about the importance of the gut and its impact on our overall health.
Elizabeth Cooper, Nutritionist at Bio-Kult, said: “The gut contains trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms (known as the gut microbiota), which play a key role in our health, including supporting the immune system, skin, lungs, urinary tract, and even the brain.
“The gut microbiota is also responsible for many aspects of digestion, including encouraging healthy bowel movements.”
While it’s considered normal to open our bowels anywhere from three times a day to three times a week, going to the toilet at least once a day can be beneficial to our health, said Cooper, as it is a key detoxification method, enabling us to expel debris and waste products such as undigested fibre, toxins, dead cells, and bacteria.
She continued: “In addition to frequency there are other factors that can determine whether a bowel movement is healthy, and it can depend on things like our diet, digestive capacity, liver function, and bowel transit time.”
Cooper outlined five things to look out for in your poo:
Hard, pebbly or lumpy stool, or difficulty in passing a stool
This can indicate constipation, said Cooper, which could result from a number of things including inactivity or lack of movement; ignoring the urge to go to the toilet; medication side effects; hormone imbalance; stress; as a secondary issue to other conditions; dysbiosis (imbalance in gut bacteria); or impaired breakdown of food.
Commonly though, it may be because of:
Dehydration – water is essential for life and is involved in virtually all functions of the human body. One of its benefits is improved digestion and absorption of nutrients from the digestive tract. Water is also necessary to keep stools soft, bulky and easy to pass.
Insufficient fibre – fibre intake is an important determinant for many aspects of health, not least its role in keeping us regular by bulking the stool, which stimulates peristalsis. Increasing our fruit and vegetable intake, switching to wholegrain varieties of grains, and increasing our intake of prebiotic fibres from foods such as onions, garlic, leeks, slightly under-ripe bananas, Jerusalem artichokes and asparagus can make a significant difference, as these help to feed our beneficial bacteria. Some people may also find taking a high fibre supplement beneficial, such as Lepicol. It is a three in one combination of gentle psyllium husk fibre, which helps to maintain normal bowel transit, five live bacteria strains to help rebalance gut microflora and inulin, a prebiotic food source for beneficial gut bacteria.
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If your stool floats, there could be a number of reasons, said Cooper.
Excessive gas – prebiotic fibres in our diet aren’t processed in the small intestine, and become a fuel source for bacteria further down in the large intestine. Our beneficial bacteria that reside here can feed on these fermentable fibres and as by-products produce extra vitamins and short-chain fatty acids that our bodies can then absorb. However, if we have a large number of potentially harmful bacteria in the large intestine instead of producing beneficial metabolites, they may produce extra gases and toxins.
Malabsorption of fat – Floaty stools can also be a sign that fat is not being digested, which is a sign that insufficient bile is reaching the intestines. It may just mean supplementing with bile acids but could be due to an underlying issue such as a blocked bile duct, so you should seek the advice of a healthcare practitioner.
Unusually coloured stools
Stools are usually a shade of brown, due to a pigment made in and released by the liver called bilirubin.
But Cooper said: “Sometimes our stool can be a different colour from the norm. This may be down to something we’ve eaten such as a large amount of green leafy vegetables, beetroot or food colouring; supplementing with iron; malabsorption; or it could be something that requires further investigation, particularly if the stool is white/clay-coloured, black or red for more than a few days.”
Loose or runny stools
Diarrhoea can have a variety of different causes, which may determine the most appropriate remedy, said Cooper.
She added: “For example, it can be caused by acute pathogenic infections (i.e., bacteria, parasites, or viruses), or by more chronic conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or lactose intolerance. It can also be a side-effect of antibiotic or other medication use or related to lifestyle factors such as alcohol or caffeine intake.
“Live bacteria supplements can be beneficial during both acute and chronic diarrhoea. In addition to competing with pathogens in the gut and secreting anti-microbial substances, beneficial bacteria can support the immune system to help fight gut infections. Bio-Kult Everyday (RRP £10.48 available to buy from www.bio-kult.co.uk) is a 14-strain live bacteria supplement, used in the largest-ever double-blind randomised controlled trial of live bacteria supplements in IBS-diarrhoea type patients. The study found that Bio-Kult significantly improved overall symptom severity, including reducing bowel movements by 58 percent, with 34 percent of participants being completely symptom free at the end of the four month trial.”
Undigested food in stool
It can be normal to see certain foods in the stool, such as sweetcorn and tomato skin, but others less so.
Cooper explained: “To digest and absorb nutrients effectively, our body produces digestive enzymes to degrade fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Whilst it is important to ensure an individual is eating a nutritious diet, it’s vital that we produce enough digestive enzymes so we can access the nutrients in food. If your food is not digested properly and nutrients absorbed, this can lead to malnourishment. In addition, undigested food travels through the digestive tract and can provide food for pathogenic bacteria, leading to dysbiosis. Whilst digestive enzyme supplementation can help, eating mindfully, including chewing your food thoroughly is vital.”
While many changes in bowel movements may be nothing to worry about, Cooper’s parting advice is if symptoms last more than a few days or you have any concerns about them, we recommend you consult with a healthcare professional.
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