Let's face it: Digestion happens. Few of us, however, can talk about the end result without
embarrassment. It's too bad; our stools, which yield clues about diet, gastrointestinal health,
and stress, anger, and anxiety levels, may be as useful a diagnostic tool as our temperature or
blood pressure. "People can tell a measure of their health by their bowel movements," says
Dr. Ted Loftness, an internist in Litchfield, Minnesota.
is so overrated as sex, and so underrated as a good bowel
From the moment food enters your mouth, your body embarks on a campaign to turn
it into a soupy mush called chyme. Chewing, saliva, peristalsis (involuntary contractions of
gastrointestinal muscles), bacteria, hydrochloric acid, digestive enzymes, bile, and other
secretions work to give each meal the consistency of split pea soup. While your digestive cells
absorb sugars, starches, fats, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, waste products travel
down the line. In the colon, the leftovers are combined, packed together, and partially
dehydrated. What remains --our feces --consists of water, indigestible fiber, undigested food
(corn, small seeds), sloughed-off dead cells, living and dead bacteria, intestinal secretions,
and bile. (Worn-out red blood cells in bile give excrement its distinctive color. )
If all goes well, you'll have a healthy bowel movement. Although digestive
idiosyncrasies, variations in intestinal bacteria, and other variables can produce different
standards for a healthy stool, it generally should be brown to light brown; formed but not
hard; cylindrical, not flattened; fairly bulky and full-bodied, not compacted; somewhat
textured but not too messy; and very easy to pass. And it shouldn't smell
-- much. "You're passing methane and bacterial, degraded foodstuffs, so there's always going to be an odor,"
says Patrick Donovan, a Seattle naturopath. "But it shouldn't be a strong, pungent odor."
Experts disagree on two other characteristics: number of pieces and buoyancy. Each
bowel movement should be in one piece, about the shape and size of a banana and tapered at
the end, according to Melanie Ferreira, a nutritionist and instructor at the Natural Gourmet
Institute for Food and Health in New York. Donovan disagrees: "Stools don't have to be
well-formed logs. They can disperse in the toilet water; they can break down."
Some experts argue that stools should float; Ferreira says buoyancy is a sign that the
body has absorbed the minerals in the food. Others believe healthy bowel movements should
touch bottom because of their bulk and fiber content. "Most stools will sink, " says Loftness,
who doesn't buy either argument. "Whether it floats or sinks really doesn't seem to make any
One of the most common gastrointestinal complaints is hard feces and infrequent,
difficult elimination -- better known as constipation. Chronic constipation may contribute to
autoimmune diseases and colon or breast cancer. "The longer stool stays in the colon, the
more one reabsorbs the metabolic products [such as estrogen] that have been excreted in the
bile, " says Donovan, who treats people with cancer in his naturopathic clinic. "We can see
increased risk of breast cancer in women with a history of constipation."
Experts agree that regularity is important but disagree sharply about frequency. The
National Institute for Diabetes, Kidney, and Digestive Diseases says three times a week is
normal and healthy for some people. According to Ayurveda, the Indian healing system, once
a day provides an ideal, complete evacuation, says Virender
Sodhi, M.D., an Ayurvedic doctor and naturopath in Bellevue, Washington. Donovan says a person should have a bowel
movement within two to three hours of a major meal -- or two to three times a day.
Ferreira thinks once or twice a day is best. She also looks beyond physical health:
"The act of digestion and elimination can be seen as a metaphor for our ability to absorb what
is useful from our experiences and eliminate what is unnecessary or harmful, or what holds us
back. If you have a healthy bowel movement each day, you're letting go of the past and
bringing in the new."
The three basics required for healthy bowel movements are fiber, fluids, and exercise.
To improve your digestive system health, try these steps:
*Eat more dietary fiber, found in whole foods, especially grains, vegetables, and
fruits. Fiber allows waste to pass through your digestive system smoothly and quickly.
*Drink plenty of fluids (water rather than sugary drinks) to prevent intestinal blockage
from excess fiber.
*Exercise daily. Even a walking program, Loftness says, promotes bowel regularity.
*Regularly eat foods known to stimulate digestive enzymes, including brown rice;
pungent foods such as garlic, ginger, and onions; and daikon radish.
*Eat fermented foods such as miso (soybean paste), tempeh (soybean cakes),
high-quality yogurt, and pickles to replenish beneficial bacteria in your gut.
*Minimize or end your intake of coffee, laxatives, and refined foods, all of which
interfere with regular elimination. Antibiotics, birth control pills, and other prescription drugs
also can hamper bowel movements. If you're constipated, ask your doctor if you can change
or reduce the medications you're taking.
*Pay attention to your food while you eat, says Sodhi. Sit down. Turn off the
television. Don't read or listen to the radio. "Look at the food, the aroma, the color." The
relationship this creates between you and the food will improve your digestion, he says.
*Heed the call of nature. Go to the bathroom when you feel the urge to eliminate, not
just when it's convenient.
*Reduce stress -- which can cause either constipation or diarrhea
-- through meditation or yoga.
*If you're daring, consider this: Squat on the rim of the toilet in your bare or stocking
feet. "Squatting straightens the recto-anal angle and opens it more fully so elimination is
much easier," says yoga practitioner Richard Ravizza, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania
State University in Scranton. "You could think of it as straightening a partially kinked garden
-- Martiga Lohn, Natural Health (reprinted in the Utne