What Is a Normal Bowel Movement?

Many people think that a normal rate of going to the bathroom is once a day, but it turns out that there's a wide spectrum of what is considered normal. Going less than once every five to seven days, however, is generally classified as constipation.

On the other extreme, some people with constipation may experience diarrhea, which is defined as having three or more watery stools a day. While it may seem like diarrhea is an improvement over constipation, note that both too many bowel movements and too few are not considered to be optimal for health and can lower your quality of life.

The Properly Functioning Digestive System

Ultimately, the goal of treatment for CIC will be to have soft, easily passed stools on a regular basis.

The digestive system does the work of breaking food down into the parts that the body can use. When everything is working as it should, digestion results in the body being nourished and producing a soft, easily passed bowel movement at the end.

Digestion starts in the mouth, as food is chewed and mixed with saliva. Chewing is voluntary, as is swallowing and defecation—the rest of the digestive process is involuntary. There's a valve in the esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter, and after swallowing, food passes through it and down to the stomach.

The muscles in the esophagus contract (a process called peristalsis) to move the food along. In the stomach, food is further broken down by the digestive juices there. The stomach muscles combine the food and the digestive juices so that nutrients become available in a form that can be used by the body in the next step of digestion. 

After the stomach, the food passes through the pyloric valve and travels into the small intestine. The small intestine does much of the work of taking up the nutrients from food. There are more digestive juices that are released into the small intestine that continue the digestive process.

Food is moved through the small intestine with peristalsis and the walls take up nutrients so that they can be used by the body. The parts of food that can't be used at this point continue to move along to the end of the small intestine and through the ileocecal valve.

After the small intestine, the partially digested food makes its way to the large intestine. The large intestine is where much of the water from what we eat and drink is absorbed. There's not much uptake of nutrients that goes on in the large intestine. By the time the waste material reaches the end of the large intestine and goes into the rectum, the entire process has taken an average of about 50 hours, though this can vary significantly depending on a number of factors, even in healthy people with normal digestion.

By the time all the undigested waste material has reached the rectum, it's now called stool. When the rectum is full, the body triggers an urge to go to the toilet. When everything has gone as it should, stool is passed easily, without straining, and is neither too loose (diarrhea) or too hard (constipation).