Poop happens. It’s one of the few universal experiences all humans share. But the frequency and volume of said poop can vary greatly from person to person. What causes one person’s bowel movements can be very different from another’s, says Niki Strealy, a registered dietitian in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in digestive health and calls herself “the Diarrhea Dietitian.” “Everybody’s bowel is different,” she says.
Dr. Thomas Kelley, a family medicine physician with Orlando Health in Florida, says that in general, “something that people may not be aware of is that essentially all foods that go into your stomach will stimulate you to have a bowel movement.”
This is because of the gastrocolic reflex, a natural body function that transpires when the stomach senses that there’s food in it. “It sends a signal to the large intestine to start contracting, and that helps to produce a bowel movement. That’s why people will often find that shortly after eating a meal, they need to have a bowel movement,” he explains.
However, “there are certain foods which have an impact on your ability to have a bowel movement,” he says, and foods that are high in fiber and have a higher water content are often stimulating. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables are supportive of healthy bowel function, he says.
But there are a few surprising things that tend to get people’s pipes moving more than others. Some of the activities, foods and drinks that make you poop immediately include:
— Garlic and other high-fructan foods.
— Sugar-free candy.
— Caffeinated drinks.
— Fatty foods.
— Lactose intolerance.
— Your period.
— A medical condition.
— Medications and supplements.
[ SEE: Best Foods to Eat for an Upset Stomach. ]
If all you need is a breath mint after enjoying a dish rich with garlic, consider yourself lucky. Some people need a toilet, since garlic contains fructans, molecules included among FODMAPs, an acronym for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These are all short-chain carbohydrates (sugars) that can trigger symptoms, including bowel movements, in people with irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive conditions.
Onions, artichokes, asparagus, leeks, wheat, barley and rye also contain fructans, which is why some people who avoid gluten to ease digestion might be misplacing their blame, Strealy says. But don’t avoid garlic if it sits well: Some research suggests it can help lower blood pressure and may even lower the risk of heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.
Fruit juices, such as apple juice, cranberry juice or pear nectar, and whole fruits including prunes, bananas and pears are also high in fructans and can stimulate the urge to poop. Prunes and prune juice, in particular, have long been touted as an at-home constipation remedy.
Satisfying your sweet tooth with sugar-free candy might save you calories but cause digestive pain. Many such “innocent” treats — as well as others such as sugar-free gum, some protein-rich foods, nutrition bars and even toothpaste — contain sugar alcohols. These are compounds found naturally in some fruits and vegetables and are also created synthetically to sweeten certain products.
Sugar alcohols, also called polyols, are the “P” in FODMAP and often appear on nutrition labels under names including isomalt, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, erythritol and xylitol. For some people, consuming them or, more often, consuming a lot of them, can cause diarrhea, says Dr. Roshini Rajapaksa, a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center.
[ READ: Causes of Chronic Constipation. ]
Students in Chris Fluck’s yoga classes needn’t be embarrassed if they pass gas while in pavanamuktasana, also known as the “wind-relieving pose.” The pose — which involves lying on the ground while squeezing alternate knees to the chest — is intended to do so.
“Hey, we’re yogis; it’s natural,” says Fluck, a Bikram yoga teacher in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
“Other types of exercises — particularly running — are well-known to promote the, um, runs, as can any number of food and fitness combinations,” Strealy says.
Exercise can promote GI motility, or the need to defecate, so it’s only natural that the more you move, the more your bowels might move too.
“Exercise is just something that our bodies were designed to need,” Kelley adds. “It’s necessary for all our body systems to function properly, including bowel function.” Exercise increases heart rate and boosts blood flow to the intestines, which can stimulate muscles there to contract and produce a bowel movement.
“Anybody who’s a coffee drinker, when you have that cup of coffee, you tend to want to have a bowel movement shortly after that,” Kelley says. Why exactly is not fully understood, but he says it may be related to the caffeine content. “I personally tend to think it might be just the warmth of the liquid, and that might relax the intestines and help things move through.”
Coffee gets all the credit for moving bowels, but other caffeinated beverages can be unsung heroes — or villains, depending on your point of view — too, says Strealy, who often finds that many of her patients with digestive trouble drink massive amounts of caffeinated sodas, black tea and other buzz-inducing beverages.
“Caffeine speeds up GI motility,” she says, since the drug is a stimulant that affects the digestive tract. While some research suggests that coffee itself, including decaf coffee, can have a laxative effect of its own, your soda habit could be sending you to the bathroom too.
Whether or not you have a medical condition to blame for loose stools, your sleep habits, relationships, work life and exercise patterns can all influence your urge to hit the loo too, Strealy says. That’s thanks to the power of the gut-brain connection, which affects some people more than others.
If you reach for agave instead of refined sugar when dressing up your coffee in an effort to embrace more natural ingredients, hold (your colon) tight before patting yourself on the back.
The nectar from cactus-like plants — as well as honey and high-fructose corn syrup — contains a high ratio of fructose to glucose. (Fructose malabsorption can cause irritable bowel syndrome, so foods with a higher fructose content, especially if you’re sensitive to fructose, can be problematic. Glucose, on the other hand, tends to be less problematic, so food with a higher ratio of fructose to glucose can be more difficult to digest for some people.) Free fructose is a simple sugar counted among those difficult-to-digest FODMAPs, and can draw excess water into the bowels when it’s not absorbed. That can cause gas and diarrhea in susceptible people.
“If your body is sensitive to excess fructose,” Strealy says, “it can cause excess problems to your bowels.”
High-fat foods, such as greasy fried foods and nuts, can sometimes trigger the gastrocolic reflex, which stimulates bowel motility. In other words, high-fat foods can ratchet up the urge to poop shortly after you consume them.
This sensation may become even more intense if you’ve had your gallbladder removed. That’s because the gallbladder stores and concentrates bile, a digestive enzyme that the body uses to break down fats in foods.
It’s perfectly possible to do just fine without a gallbladder, as the liver still creates bile, which is deposited directly into the small intestine. However, lacking a gallbladder can mean the body has a difficult time regulating the right amount of bile release. This can result in diarrhea that’s often worse after high-fat meals.
Research suggests that some racial and ethnic groups are at higher risk for certain intolerances, particularly to lactose — another common irritant that falls under the FODMAP umbrella, Strealy says.
While the majority of the human population has, to some degree, a limited ability to digest lactose — found in dairy products like milk and yogurt — after infancy, people of East Asian, West African, Arab, Greek and Italian descent are particularly vulnerable, according to the National Institutes of Health.
You might already attribute monthly mood swings, cramps and mental fogginess to your menstrual cycle, but if diarrhea tends to strike cyclically, it’s likely you can chalk it up to your period too, Rajapaksa says.
“Many women notice loose stools” during that time of the month, she says, perhaps due to the same hormonal changes that cause your uterus to contract and, for many women, cramp.
A Medical Condition
Plenty of diseases, including IBS, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, are well-known to cause diarrhea, constipation or both. Some people who’ve had their gallbladder removed also experience digestive issues such as diarrhea.
“If a person has an underactive thyroid, it can cause the gut to be lazy and not want to be stimulated. Constipation can be one of the first signs someone will notice when they have an underactive thyroid,” Kelley says. In contrast, an overactive thyroid can lead to diarrhea or more frequent bowel movements.
That’s why it’s important to seek care if your toilet habits have changed or don’t seem normal. “There are activities and foods you can incorporate into your lifestyle to help stimulate your colon, but if those don’t work or you’re having the opposite issue … don’t (just) live with it; speak to your doctor,” Rajapaksa says. “Sometimes it’s a sign of an underlying condition that needs to be diagnosed and treated.”
Medications and Supplements
Certain medications or dietary supplements can also stimulate the colon to move waste through more quickly, Kelley says. In particular, a widely used diabetes drug called metformin can cause loose or more frequent stool in some people.
Magnesium can also make you poop. This mineral, that’s sometimes used to help people sleep better, can raise the amount of water in the intestine and in turn stimulate a bowel movement. For this reason, magnesium supplements are sometimes used for constipation relief.
The Bottom Line
While there’s a lot of variation from person to person in terms of what’s normal when it comes to bathroom habits, Kelley says that, on average, people tend to have a bowel movement anywhere from two or three times per day to once every two or three days. “That can be completely normal on both ends of that spectrum,” he says.
But if your normal pattern changes significantly for more than a couple of weeks, it’s worth talking to your medical provider.
In addition, he notes that if you’ve got other concerning symptoms, you should visit a doctor sooner. These symptoms include:
— Frequent diarrhea.
— Blood in your stool.
— Abdominal pain.
— Unexpected weight loss.
— Changes in the size of the stool, particularly if it becomes very narrow, as this can be a sign of colon cancer that needs to be checked out soon.
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