How often should you poop? The answer might not be what you think

Posted at 12:48 PM, Jul 12, 2023

Everyone poops, but it turns out we don’t all need to poop every day.

That’s a misconception, said gastroenterologist Dr. Folasade May, an associate professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“I even have people who try and make appointments, because they say, ‘Oh, I stopped having a bowel movement every single day a few years ago,’” May said. “And I have to remind people that there’s really not a fixed or normal number of bowel movements.”

That notion probably stems from a Victorian-era belief that having a bowel movement daily makes you healthier, said Dr. Michael Camilleri, a consultant and professor in the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Not necessarily. “Most people will have anywhere between a bowel movement up to three times a day to three times per week,” May added. “Anywhere in that range, we consider normal.”

When it comes to bowel movements as a measure of health, frequency isn’t the only important factor. And several factors can influence how often we poop, including diet, hydration, stress, age, medication use and social circumstances, said Dr. Trisha Pasricha, a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Are your poop patterns right for you?

It’s helpful to know what your poop looks like in addition to just how often you poop.

“The stool form, appearance or consistency of the bowel movement is actually a much better criterion than the simple numbers to frequency,” Camilleri said.

Medical professionals assess stool quality using the Bristol Stool Chart, which classifies stools into seven groups. The healthiest kinds of poop are types three and four — stool that’s shaped like a sausage with cracks on the surface or snakelike and smooth.

If you’re pooping three times per week and the consistency is hard or pebble-like, that could be fine if you haven’t experienced any change in your quality of life, Pasricha said.

But if you’re excessively straining when trying to poop or feeling like you haven’t totally emptied your bowel, you may need to make changes to either poop more often or have healthier stool quality, experts said.

Putting your feet on a toilet stool — or even a stack of books — could help. Doing so raises your knees above your hips, relaxing the pelvic floor muscles that support your bowel and allowing poop to pass through more easily, Pasricha said.

“We did not evolve to have our bowel movements sitting with our hips at 90 degrees on a chair, which is what we do now. We used to all have bowel movements squatting,” she said. “Sitting at that sort of upright, 90-degree angle actually closes off the passageway.”

How to have healthy poop

Just like we need to make good choices to get restful sleep, we need to make wise food and drink choices to keep our bowels healthy.

Eating enough fiber from vegetables, fruits, whole grains and nuts can help prevent constipation, experts said. Total fiber intake should be at least 25 grams daily, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.

Some studies have found kiwis and prunes can be especially helpful for relieving constipation, experts said. But don’t eat too much fiber, as that has been linked with abdominal bloating or loose stools, experts said.

Being sufficiently hydrated softens the stool so you can pass it without straining, May said.

“Coffee, or caffeinated beverages, have also been shown to stimulate the contractions of the colon,” Camilleri said, noting they can induce bowel movements.

READ MORE: Why does coffee make you poop? Experts explain

A high-fat diet, on the other hand, can slow your digestive system down, May added.

What else affects our bowel movements?

Movement also matters. Many people in the US live sedentary lifestyles, May said, but exercising helps your digestive tract massage and move food, promoting the passage of stool.

How fast or slow food moves through the digestive tract can also depend on genetics, May said, and our digestive systems tend to slow down as we age.

Medical conditions such as hypothyroidism, irritable bowel syndrome, irritable bowel disease or ulcerative colitis can affect regularity, as well as some medications, such as opioids and antidepressants. Having a baby or gaining and losing a lot of weight can also cause pelvic floor dysfunction, making poop difficult to expel, May said.

Stress can also affect our bowel movements. When we eat our stomachs stretch, sending a message from there to the brain then down the spinal cord, the nerves of which induce colon contractions, Camilleri said — resulting in a bowel movement. But if we’re stressed, hormones and nervous system changes can prevent poop from moving toward the rectum, resulting in constipation. Some people experience the other extreme — diarrhea — when stressed.

Bowel regularity can also be influenced by not responding to urges to poop due to not having easy or private access to bathrooms, experts said. Some people might feel embarrassed to poop around others at work or school.

But don’t delay — the right time to poop is when you’re feeling the urge to do so, experts said.

If you have to sit on the toilet for more than five to 10 minutes, you should discuss the issue with your doctor, Camilleri said. Bloating or abdominal distension or pain are other signs that your bowel movement frequency is negatively affecting your health.

But if you’re taking too long on the toilet because you’re using your phone, stop letting that distract you, Camilleri said.

If lifestyle changes don’t work, a doctor would be able to prescribe medications, supplements or laxatives that can aid in regularity.