Let’s talk about poop—seriously. It’s something we’ve talked about before, so chances are, you already know when your movements look or smell weird (if you need a refresher, here are 7 things your poop says about you). But what about the way you go No. 2—how long it takes, how often you go, how you sit on the toilet…you get the idea. We consulted a few trusty gastroenterologists to get the facts straight. Here’s what they had to say about your pooping habits.
“On average, people go once or twice a day,” says Felice Schnoll-Sussman, MD, director of the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. “But many people go way more.” And not pooping for a day, two, or even three can also be fine. In short, if you feel OK—no upset stomach, no trouble making it to the bathroom on time—then you probably don’t need to worry.
“The rule with pooping is there’s no such thing as normal—just normal from one person’s perspective,” says Schnoll-Sussman. So what if you’re a once-a-day pooper who’s suddenly going three or four times a day? Schnoll-Sussman says that it could be as simple as your diet (eat some sketchy meat recently?) or as complex as an infectious diarrheal disease. It could even be a good change; maybe you’ve started eating more fiber, for example. The important thing is to go to your doctor if your new pooping schedule gives you a constant upset stomach or your frequent bathroom trips start to make social situations, umm, awkward.
2. Being regular’s a good thing.
If you can set your watch to your bowel movements, it means that you have a healthy digestive system. But don’t worry if you aren’t quite so regular. You can poop at any point in the day, but experts have noticed that it’s common to visit the porcelain throne first thing in the morning. “Most people eat the heaviest meal in the evening,” Schnoll-Sussman says. “So when you wake up, there’s been hours and hours for food to digest and position itself in your bowel.” She also explains that when you’re lying flat, your bowels close off so you won’t feel enough pressure to wake up to poop. But when you stand up, your bowels open and everything shifts downward.
The second-most common time to poop has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with human nature: Lots of people head to the bathroom when they get home from work. “It’s simply because there’s time to relax and have a bowel movement,” says Lisa Ganjhu, DO, FACG, AGAF, an clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center.
3. Running to the bathroom after meals doesn’t always signal trouble.
If dinner seems like it goes right through you, it’s not because you have a super-efficient digestive system. Instead, Ganjhu says, it’s more like your digestive tract never grew up. “Pooping right after you eat is a reflex babies have,” she says. For some people, that reflex never goes away.
Though it might not be ideal, having to be near a bathroom after meals is perfectly normal and isn’t anything to worry about, says Schnoll-Sussman. The stool you pass after dinner isn’t from the food you just put in your mouth (even if eating is what triggered the “got to go” reflex), so your body has had plenty of time to soak up the nutrients. The only problem, Schnoll-Sussman says, is if your poop is runny, floats, and smells terrible—that likely means that you’re not absorbing fats well. In that case, you should make an appointment with a gastroenterologist.
4. Coffee really does really get things going.
You know it’s true, but you might be curious as to why. Ganjhu says it’s because caffeine stimulates your bowels. The drug makes your gut contract, which in turn pushes stool toward your rectum. “So it’s not uncommon for people to have their morning coffee and then have a poop,” Ganjhu says.
5. Periods and more poop go hand-in-hand.
Add this to the list of unfair things: Getting your period often means cramps, bloating, and…more time on the toilet. Ganjhu says it has to do with hormones. “A lot of women say they have looser stool on their periods,” she says. Scientists believe it’s because the hormones you release during your cycle, called prostaglandins, trigger your uterus to contract and can sometimes get into your bowels and cause them to contract as well. And contracting bowels means more bowel movements.
6. Your technique matters.
If you feel like pushing stool out takes eons, Schnoll-Sussman says it could be because you’re not sitting right. Science has proven that the most effective position for going No. 2 isn’t at the 90-degree angle created by sitting on a typical toilet, but more of a 45-degree angle that you get when you squat over the ground. It harkens back to the time of our ancestors, when toilets didn’t exist and everyone had to squat to go to the bathroom. Squatting changes the position of your rectum so it’s at an angle that lets poop slip out with minimal effort, Schnoll-Sussman says. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy position to master on modern toilets. Our suggestion: Try a Squatty Potty—Schnoll-Sussman says they really do work.
7. Vacation constipation is totally normal.
Stop us if this sounds familiar: You’re on a family vacation, enjoying relaxing days on the beach with sun and sand, but there’s just one problem—you haven’t pooped for days. One study estimated that 40% of people experience vacation constipation, although both Schnoll-Sussman and Ganjhu say it’s impossible to know the real number.
So what’s the problem? “Just sitting on a plane for a few hours is enough to dry your colon out,” says Schnoll-Sussman. The atmospheric pressure inside a plane is different than the pressure outside, so it slowly sucks water out of your body and your bowels. Dehydration worsens as you spend all your time at the beach or sightseeing and forget to drink as much water as you do at home. Meanwhile, you’re probably eating tons of (possibly fried and fatty) foods that you normally don’t eat. And having to get down to business in an unfamiliar place—perhaps in a different time zone—can also make your colon extra shy.
8. Take all the time you need.
Do you read the whole newspaper—or get through several levels of Candy Crush—on the toilet? There’s nothing wrong with taking your sweet time or with pooping super-fast. If it takes you 5 minutes, great, but if it takes 20, that’s OK, too, says Schnoll-Sussman. “Most times you don’t even have to think about it,” Ganjhu says. “The colon knows when it is empty and done.”
That said, if pooping seems to take forever because you’re really straining—or because you need to manipulate your bowels to help yourself poop by sitting a certain way or even sticking a finger in your anus—you ought to see a gastroenterologist. “Some people who have a lot of difficulty may have some anatomical abnormalities that could be impinging on the rectum,” Schnoll-Sussman says.
By Kasandra Brabaw