What does a change in bowel habits mean? It may not seem like a big deal, but it can be something worth keeping track of and bringing up to your doctor. Most people will experience constipation or diarrhea at some point, and while some cases may be able to be fixed at home, other more serious cases may require medical attention.
If you suffer from constipation, have diarrhea, or wonder if these issues are becoming chronic (frequent) issues, read more to find out what they could mean and what to do about them.
Constipation occurs when your body has difficulty passing regular bowel movements—either they’re infrequent or you have to strain in order to relieve yourself. You are considered constipated if you have fewer than three bowel movements a week, and severely constipated if bowel movements occur less than once a week. If this has been persisting for more than three weeks, it is considered chronic.
Constipation can be caused by many things and is generally not considered a health issue on its own, but more as a symptom of something else. It generally occurs when digested food spends too much time in your colon. While the food is in your colon, your body absorbs water from it and the constipation occurs when too much water is absorbed, making your stool hard and dry and difficult to pass. In most cases, you can make small tweaks to your diet and lifestyle that can improve your bowel movements.
Consider adding fiber to your diet in the form of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Drink more water, exercise, go to the bathroom as soon as you feel the urge, and talk to your doctor about any medications you may be taking that could be exacerbating the issue. There are certain medical conditions that could also bring on constipation. These include GI tract issues, IBS, or conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, diabetes, thyroid disease, or lupus.
Diarrhea can be defined an increase in the number of bowel movements, characterized by loose, watery stool and irregular frequency. Often, these bowel movements are accompanied by abdominal cramps, fever, bloating, or dehydration. You may experience acute diarrhea (lasting a few days) or chronic diarrhea (typically lasting more than three weeks).
Diarrhea is caused by an infection in the intestines that prevents nutrients from absorbing correctly. Additionally, eating foods that you are allergic to, like gluten or dairy, can also cause diarrhea. Food poisoning, when you unknowingly consume bacteria like salmonella or E. coli, can cause similar symptoms but often include extreme upset stomach and vomiting. By sharing beverages or food, shaking hands, or opening doors without frequently washing your hands, you have a greater chance of inviting viruses to enter your digestive system.
If your constipation or diarrhea has become chronic, it’s time to come in for a visit. Most exams will begin with a series of questions about your diet, lifestyle, medications you may be taking, and a discussion about your symptoms. Your doctor may also perform a physical exam, especially if your symptoms are accompanied with stomach pain, unexplained weight loss, blood in the stool, or if it’s a new issue you’re dealing with. Other diagnostic tests might include a barium enema x-ray, a colonoscopy, or a sigmoidoscopy.
Don’t let a change in your bowel habits get you down any longer. Make an appointment at Carolina Digestive Health Associates so we can help determine the cause—and remedy—for your symptoms.