Should You Have a Daily Bowel Movement?

Many People Think That They Must Move Their Bowels Every Day

Toilet
Is it necessary to have a bowel movement every day? Not really, but you shouldn't have them too frequently, or too infrequently, either. Image © Peter Dazeley / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

It's a common belief that having a normal digestive system means having a daily bowel movement. However, this is simply just not true for everyone. In fact, "normal" could be anything from having a bowel movement a few times a day to a few times a week. There is no hard and fast rule as to what is normal because it varies from person to person.

What Is Constipation?

If you do not have a daily bowel movement, it does not mean you are constipated.

In general, constipation is having a bowel movement less than once every 3 days. It also means that bowel movements are hard, dry, and difficult to pass. Some of the main causes of constipation include not eating enough fiber, not drinking enough fluids, and not getting enough exercise. Certain medications, such as narcotics that are used to treat pain, may also contribute to constipation. Diseases and conditions may also cause constipation, and they don't have to be digestive diseases. Any condition that can cause the muscles of the intestine to stop working as they should, such as Parkinson's disease or a stroke, could also result in constipation.  

What Is Diarrhea?

Having more than one movement a day does not mean that you have diarrhea. Diarrhea is generally defined as watery stool more than three times a day. Diarrhea could be caused by a virus or a bacteria, such as those that cause gastroenteritis (commonly called the "stomach flu").

Some people develop diarrhea after taking a course of antibiotics to treat an infection. Several different digestive conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), could cause diarrhea. In some cases, especially when a virus or a bacteria is suspected, anti-diarrheal medications are not recommended.

Instead, a physician should be consulted before taking these types of medications, even though they are available over-the-counter.  

When To Be Concerned

Most healthy adults experience diarrhea or constipation at some point in their lives, often once or twice a year, but a consistent change in your normal bowel habits (such as color, frequency, or consistency) should be discussed with your physician. Blood in the stool is never normal, and should always be reported to a physician immediately. This is even true for those who have an established digestive condition such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, and who experience blood in the stool every so often. New bleeding could mean that the disease has flared up again and treatment might need to be changed.

People over the age of 50 should especially be watchful of changes in bowel habits. The risk of colon cancer increases in people over the age of 50, and colon cancer screening is recommended. The type of screening and how often it must be done will be decided by a gastroenterologist (a digestive specialist) or other physician, but a colonoscopy is usually the preferred method.

Digestive symptoms that should not be ignored:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Mucus in the stool
  • Diarrhea for more than 3 days
  • Constipation for 3 or more days
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting for 3 or more days
  • Severe abdominal bloating or swelling 

Sources:

American Academy of Family Physicians. "Constipation." FamilyDoctor.org August 2012.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. "Facts and Fallacies About Digestive Diseases." National Institutes of Health Publication No. 04–2673 Oct 2003.

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