Look after your bowel for better health and well-being 

Many of us shy away from discussing our bowels, but they play a key role in our overall health, so it’s important to understand how to look after them.

How our bowel works 

Our bowel is part of our digestive system, which begins at our mouth. The digestive system includes our oesophagus, stomach, small intestine (small bowel), large intestine (colon), rectum, and anus. 

When we eat, food moves through our oesophagus into the stomach where the digestion process begins. Our small intestine, which is up to six metres long, absorbs the nutrients from our food. From there, the colon absorbs water as the digested food is passed through. Our rectum stores the remaining solid waste products (also known as faeces, poo, stools or bowel motions), until they are passed out of the body through the anus. 

Common bowel problems  

From time to time, our bowel may not work the way it should. Two of the most common problems we can experience are diarrhoea and constipation. 

Diarrhoea is a result of the contents of the bowel moving too quickly through the intestines. When this happens, more fluid stays in the bowel making the stool more liquid. Diarrhoea may be caused by many things including an upset stomach, bowel infections (caused by either viruses, bacteria or parasites), antibiotics and other medications, stress, food intolerance, or underlying medical conditions. 

If you’re straining when going to the toilet, you’re unable to go to the toilet, or your poo is hard, dry and painful to pass, it may be a sign of constipation. Constipation can be caused by many things, but it’s usually a combination of lifestyle factors. Common causes include a change in routine, not drinking enough water, eating a diet low in fibre, some medications, or not getting enough exercise. The risk of constipation also increases with age due to reliance on medication, reduced exercise, and reduced muscle contractions in the bowel. 

Treating bowel complications through lifestyle  

Most cases of diarrhoea usually last for a few days but if it continues, you should see a doctor, as it may be a sign of an underlying health condition. In the meantime, you should: 


  • drink water or diluted fruit juice to prevent dehydration 
  • avoid tea, coffee, milk, soft drinks and alcohol, along with foods high in fat, sugar or fibre
  • avoid passing on any infection to others by practicing good hygiene habits, in particular washing your hands after going to the toilet

 

Constipation can cause pain when going to the toilet, so treatments for constipation relief will vary depending upon the extent of the problem. In many cases treatment through lifestyle changes will suffice. These include: 


  • increasing your dietary fibre intake 
  • drinking more water 
  • getting regular exercise, where possible 
  • making time for bowel movements

 

Treating constipation with laxatives 

Sometimes the above steps may not be enough, and you may need a laxative to manage the problem. However, you should speak to your doctor first as there are different types of laxatives for constipation that work in different ways. Some may also have side effects.

The most common laxatives are fibre supplements. Also known as ‘bulk laxatives’, they work by absorbing fluid in the bowel, increasing the bulk of the faeces, which stimulates bowel movement. These are usually the first choice of treatment for mild constipation, if changing lifestyle factors don’t do the trick. They may also be used to prevent constipation in those at risk.

Osmotic laxatives increase the amount of water in the colon, which makes the poo softer and easier to pass, while stimulant laxatives are designed to stimulate the bowel to contract. 

For those who are very constipated, suppositories or enemas may be necessary. Best used under the supervision of a health professional, these treatments are designed to stimulate bowel movement. 

Promoting good bowel health

As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. You can reduce the risk of bowel issues by following the guidelines below.

 

    • eat well and include high-fibre foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains
    • drink plenty of water each day
    • where possible, be active as it helps the digestion process 
    • allow enough time for bowel movements
    • avoid straining, rushing or holding your breath when you have a bowel movement
    • know what's 'normal' for you, so you can identify any changes to your bowel habits. 

 

Remember, the health of our bowel impacts the rest of our body, so if you experience any ongoing problems, be sure to speak to your doctor.

 

Please note the information supplied is general in nature. Please consult your medical practitioner for individual advice.


References 

Better Health Chanel, Bowel Motions https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/bowel-motions

Continence Foundation of Australia, Looking after your bowel: A Guide to Improving Bowel Function https://www.continence.org.au/resources.php/01tA0000001b1daIAA/looking-after-your-bowel-a-guide-to-improving-bowel-function

Healthdirect, Infections of the bowel https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/infections-of-the-bowel

Jean Hailes, Bowel Health,  https://jeanhailes.org.au/health-a-z/bladder-bowel/bowel-health

MyDr, Constipation: treatment options, http://www.mydr.com.au/gastrointestinal-health/constipation-treatment-options