Changes in Bowel Habits: Types and Causes

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Bowel habits differ from individual to individual, which is perfectly natural. While some people have a change in bowel habits with age, it is important to understand that some of these changes can be brought on by underlying health conditions. If you have been experiencing irregularities with your bathroom habits, then it is time to evaluate why they are occurring.

Changes Bowel Habits

What are Normal Bowel Habits?

A normal bowel movement can vary from person to person, however, if you go three days without any bowel movement, then that is a sign that something is wrong. Sometimes, you may experience minor irregularities based on what you’ve eaten. Thus, you should watch out for consistent irregularities spread over a period of time in order to classify it as a problem. Apart from its frequency, you should also consider the colour and consistency of your stool.

What Kind of Changes Can Occur in Bowel Habits?

It is natural to experience a change in bowel habits with age, but some changes may indicate underlying medical problems.  Let us look at the changes that may indicate that you need to visit a doctor as soon as possible.

Changes in Colour:

If your stool colour is a shade of brown, then that’s considered healthy. However, the following changes can occur if you have underlying health problems:

  • White stool: Can indicate a problem with your biliary tree
  • Black, tarry looking stool: Can indicate bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract
  • Red stool: Can indicate internal bleeding
  • Clay coloured stools: Can indicate liver problems or bile duct stones

Changes in Consistency:

While stool colours can often indicate a problem, they are not the only parameter to judge your poop by. If you notice changes in consistency, then that can also indicate a problem. Ideally, your stools should be soft and they should pass with minimal effort on your part. The following changes can indicate health issues:

  • Hard, dry stool: Can indicate you are constipated. If you experience constipation for more than two weeks, then you must visit your doctor.
  • Watery stools: Can indicate diarrhoea.
  • Mucus lined stools: Can indicate an internal obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract.

Changes in Frequency:

Unexplainable, sudden urges to pass stool can indicate underlying health conditions. Furthermore, not passing stool for more than three days or being constipated or having diarrhoea for more than 2 weeks can also indicate health concerns.

Changes Accompanied by Other Symptoms:

You may notice that your bowel movements are accompanied by other changes in your health. If this is the case, you must visit your doctor immediately. Some of the changes that you need to watch out for include:

  • Diarrhoea along with a vomiting, chills, and fever of 101 degrees.
  • Discomfort or abdominal pain along with diarrhoea that does not get better when you pass stool or gas.
  • Severe diarrhoea that has lasted for over two days.

Changes After Medical Treatments or Procedures:

If you have recently undergone any medical treatment or procedure, you may notice changes while you are still in the hospital, or later when you are discharged. Bowel habits after gallbladder removal can alter a little bit, and this is an expected change. Your surgeon may prescribe stool softeners to help you. Moreover, you may have to structure your diet in a way that it contains high fibre content for the rest of your life. This will help you prevent constipation.

Bowel habits after a colon resection can often alarm patients, as they occur with greater frequency and urgency. They can also be more watery than you are used to. Furthermore, do not expect your bowel habits after a colon resection to stabilize soon after surgery. It may take a few weeks for your body to establish a discernible pattern when it comes to the same.

Similarly, bowel habits after gastric bypass also take some time to stabilize. Like the movements after a colon resection, the stool in this case will also be slightly watery. Patients also tend to feel a greater sense of urgency to expel the contents of their bowels. If your bowel habits after gastric bypass do not stabilize after 2-3 weeks, you should consult your doctor to eliminate any further issues in your gastrointestinal tract.

Changes Due to Stress:

Finally, it is essential to note that not all changes occur due to physiological concerns – the condition of your mind plays an equally important role. When it comes to a sudden change in bowel movements, stress can often be the cause. Stress can compel your body to expel its stool faster, which can lead to diarrhoea, or an increased frequency in bowel movements. Some patients, on the other hand, experience constipation due to stress, however, this is a rarer reaction than experiencing diarrhoea. If this is the case, to combat the change in bowel movements, stress is the aspect of your life you should tackle first. Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises can help tremendously.

Bowel Habits of the Elderly:

Ageing can impact digestive health, which is why the bowel habits of the elderly tend to be quite sporadic. Some common changes in bowel habits with age are:

  • Constipation: most people begin experiencing constipation in their 50s and 60s. This is one of the most common issues the elderly face.
  • Constipation due to GI tract changes:  As you age, sometimes, the peristalsis in the gastrointestinal tract can be affected. This means that food and waste moves along the tract at a much slower rate. As a result, the body absorbs higher amounts of water from the waste, which can contribute to the stools becoming hard and dry. This can lead to constipation.
  • Changes due to medications: As you age, you may be required to take certain medications to combat illnesses. Some of these can lead to constipation, diarrhoea and infrequent bowel movements.

Furthermore, changes in the bowel habits of the elderly can also be caused due to health problems such as:

  • Acid reflux
  • Polyps – which are growths in the colon
  • Stroke, dementia and Parkinson’s disease, which lead to problems with swallowing and food consumption
  • Ulcers
  • Diverticular disease – which causes weak pouches to develop along the intestines.
  • Inactivity and bedrest
  • Dehydration

While it is natural to develop certain problems as you age, consistent bowel movement problems can be indicative of underlying diseases. Ensuring that the elderly in your family get regular health check-ups done can help you nip problems in the bud.

How to Improve Bowel Movements?

Changes Bowel Habit

Your bowel movements are largely governed by what you eat. Thus, the best way to improve them is to work on your diet. The following foods can help you have satisfactory and regular bowel movements:

  • Apples
  • Prunes
  • Bananas
  • Artichokes
  • Beans
  • Rhubarb
  • Pears
  • Flaxseeds
  • Kiwi
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Figs
  • Kefir
  • Oats
  • Lentils
  • Chia seeds

Apart from including these foods, you can also use castor oil for very severe constipation. However, this should only be used in moderation. Fibre supplements can also help patients who may not benefit from only having a fibre rich diet.

Conclusion:

Your bowel movements are your body’s way of telling you that something might not be right. This is why you should pay attention to them. By doing so, you can catch problems early on before they become chronic health concerns.

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Dr. Vikas Sharma MD
Dr. Vikas Sharma M.D. is a practicing general physician at Vikas Hospital in Mehrauli, Delhi. With over 17 years of medical experience, Dr. Vikas Sharma is an expert in treating diabetes mellitus and hypertension. He completed his MD degree from Peoples’ Friendship University, Russia in 2001. He frequently holds free medical camps every month for general health check-ups and hypertension. After attending to the rush of patients during whatever little leisure time he gets he listens to music or plays cricket.

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