Written for Dr. Thornburg Wellness by Special Contributor, Jennifer Barrell, MS, CNS, LDN
Poop. We all do it, or we all should, regularly. Yet the questions remain: Is it normal? What is normal…and why is it so important?
An infant’s first poo, that dark green sludgy-looking substance- or meconium, can be somewhat alarming for new parents. As foreign as it seems, it makes sense given their last “meal” included all types of in utero appetizers such as amniotic fluid, intestinal epithelial cells and bile. After this first alien poo a child’s bowel movements will go through numerous changes in frequency and consistency for years to come. As their wee bodies settle and get used to living life outside of the womb, their bowel movements fluctuate as well- infants are not known for their stability. Changes in sleep patterns, nursing duration and frequency, and a nursing mothers’ diet can all affect a wee one’s stool consistency. Current science suggests that when an infant is vaginally born their microbiome mirrors the mothers. So, the gut health of the mother at birth largely determines the gut health of the babe to start. However, all of that changes once outside food or formula is introduced. This is when the next major change in bowel movements occurs, naturally.
You can tell a lot about a person by their poop. Most of us know about the good ol’ Bristol Stool chart for checking consistency. Type 4 is ideal: smooth, soft and sausage or snake like. Pebbles, rocks, and/or straining all indicate constipation, or types 1-3. On the other spectrum loose, no form, or liquid-like suggests diarrhea, or types 5-7: which is also not ideal. Occasional diarrhea may not be a red flag depending on the diet and symptoms, but occasional constipation can build up quickly creating a laundry list of cascading troubles.
When the large intestine becomes backed up, those areas stretch and little pockets are created. This makes it easier for more stool to get trapped, thus exacerbating a seemingly innocuous one-time event. This is one reason why it is essential to keep it all moving- all the time.
Consequences of constipation
Biotransformation is the process by which our bodies breakdown substances that are unwanted or not needed. There are three phases: phase I, phase II, and phase III. Stool elimination and urination are the third phase. Our body’s ability to properly detox relies on adequate hydration and regular bowel movements to effectively rid the body of any environmental or ingested toxicants. Without consistent stool movements our bodies cannot effectively process the toxins we are exposed to daily. Toxins that sit in the colon for extended periods of time may be reabsorbed thus putting more stress on the liver. Excessive toxin build-up plus harmful bacteria growth equal bad news. It is comparable to not taking out the trash at night. If there is a chicken carcass in the garbage can overnight, it will decompose, and bacteria will grow creating a foul odor. It would be unusual to leave that chicken carcass in the trash for days, just as it is unnatural to withhold stool.
Besides abdominal pain, constipation can affect our immune system. Over 70% of our immune system resides in the gut, thus maintaining regular bowel movement is imperative to our ability to fight off bacteria and viruses that we encounter daily. The gut-brain axis model demonstrates how constipation can also affect sleep patterns, moods and our general sense of well-being. It is widely known that sustained stress causes elevated levels of cortisol -our stress hormone. However on-going stress also lowers levels of serotonin – a hormone related with happiness- and gut motility. Constipation can also lead to dysbiosis- an imbalance of beneficial bacteria, which also contributes to: anxiety, depression, and a far-reaching list of other ailments affecting the entire body.
Chronic constipation can lead to anal fissures, malabsorption of nutrients, a build up of toxins, liver stress, fecal impaction, a stretched out colon or diverticulitis, gall-bladder issues, varicose veins, arthritis, and hernias.
As mentioned previously, bowel movements can be altered by a wide variety of dietary, environmental and lifestyle choices and factors.
Here are 7 basic tactics to keep everything moving.
1. Stay hydrated– sip filtered water all day rather than gulping large amounts at one time. Drink half your body weight in ounces (approx), more if excessively sweating (which happens here in the summer!). Don’t forget about sodium and potassium when hydrating.
2. Exercise! Regular movement maintains regular movement.
3. Ensure sufficient dietary soluble & unsoluble fiber and resistant starch daily. Both types of fiber have different jobs, so both are important. Soluble fiber is found in many growing foods, specifically beans, greens and complex carbs. Specific soluble fibers feed beneficial bacteria in the gut. Insoluble fibers attract water and act as the bulking agent for stools, creating a larger more well-formed poo. Insoluble fiber is found in whole grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables- usually the skin, seed or stalk. Resistant starch acts as an insoluble and soluble fiber, and keeps you fuller for longer. The four types of resistant starches are found in unusual places such as slightly green bananas or cooked and then cooled white potatoes.
4. Remove processed foods such as those high in sugar, fried foods and refined grains. Besides the additional toxicants that come with eating processed foods, and the lack of nutrients, they can also slow down the biotransformation process.
5. Eat slow, mindfully and chew properly. Resting and digesting allows the body to produce the necessary enzymes and stomach acid to properly breakdown the food.
6. Ensure sufficient vitamin C and magnesium. These are just two of the micronutrients needed for proper elimination.
7. Manage stress somehow, someway. Find time to meditate daily, do yoga or any other task that keeps you present, at peace and content.
Determining the root cause of the constipation (or diarrhea) is of utmost importance. If symptoms of either persist for longer periods of time, more stress gets put upon the rest of the body and the more complicated an already complex system becomes.
More about the author:
Jennifer Barrell, MS, CNS, LDN, is a wife, mother of two perfect little ones, and a functional/clinical nutritionist currently living and helping people navigate their way to health in Naples, FL.