Few things are as important to your physical (and mental) well-being as hitting the John. But to keep up your GI health, you need to know—really know—your shit. Especially as we enter the tail end of holiday season. Here's how to be the boss of your bowel movements.
Back in your potty-training days, No. 2 was your No. 1 priority. It was the most important thing you did all day—and you were praised for your achievements. Judging by the aging actors populating laxative ads on TV, you'd think that regularity was solely the concern of the silver-haired. But your fast-paced lifestyle—long office hours, late-night business dinners, scant shut-eye, and, presumably, spotty gym attendance—makes you increasingly likely to wind up with a traffic-jammed digestive tract. "Eating late, stress, and lack of sleep are directly related to digestive health," says John A. Dumot, a gastroenterologist at the UH Digestive Health Institute in Cleveland. In other words, it can be even harder for a young master of the universe to be a regular guy.
Just what "regular" means is different for everybody, but doctors agree that taking to the throne between three times a day and once every three days is within the healthy range. Symptoms of constipation include gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort, but it's not a cause for concern until you haven't passed anything for several days, according to David Carr-Locke, chief of digestive diseases at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Chronic constipation, though, can lead to hemorrhoids and perhaps colon cancer. Diarrhea—frequent movements characterized by cramping, urgency, and nausea—can put you at risk for dehydration.
The good news: You can get your gut in gear. "Most Americans only get between 9 and 11 grams of fiber a day, but men should be eating between 30 and 38," says Tanya Zuckerbrot, R.D., the author of The F-Factor Diet. You'll reap the feel-good rewards, physical and mental—because we never quite lose that sense of accomplishment after a successful off-loading.
The Best Ways to Get Things Moving
FILL UP ON FIBER. . .
Balance your muscle-building, high-protein diet with ample portions of insoluble and soluble fiber. For insoluble fiber, eat brown rice, seeds, raisins, and any leafy green vegetables. Soluble fiber is found in oatmeal, apples, berries, and avocados. To help you get your 30 to 38 daily grams: black beans (15 grams per cup), raspberries (8g), and whole-wheat spaghetti (6.2g).
. . . BUT DO SO GRADUALLY
Zuckerbrot recommends adding 4 grams of fiber per day to your current intake until you're on track: "It can cause some digestive distress if you increase your fiber intake all at once."
Water helps flush waste, so aim for 8 to 10 daily glasses. Avoid artificially sweetened drinks, as fake sugars can cause maldigestion via gas and altered bowel habits, gastroenterologist John A. Dumot says.
WORK IT OUT
"Exercise stimulates bowel activity," says gastroenterologist Anish Sheth, the coauthor of What's Your Poo Telling You? But if you jump into long-distance running, beware of "runner's trots"—blood flow to your legs means less blood in the intestinal muscles and potentially diarrhea.
LOG YOUR ZZZs
Inadequate sleep is linked to difficult bowel movements. Aim for at least seven hours a night.
Four Myths About No. 2
Myth: Prunes are the go-to fruit.
Reality: The dried plums are packed with sorbitol, an excellent laxative, but apples, pears, and peaches also contain an ample amount—as long as you eat the skin, too.
Myth: It's okay to "hold it."
Reality: When nature calls, answer. "The motility and urge may not return for some time, leading to dry and hard stools that are difficult to move," Dr. Dumot says.
Myth: Your diet needs probiotics.
Reality: There's no harm in consuming probiotics in yogurt and other products, but no need—the good bacteria in your gut live there unless a cleanse or colonic purges them.
Myth: Your shit don't stink.
Reality: We're used to our own bathroom odors, says Sheth, the same way you might not notice your body odor or bad breath. But to others, it's as odorous as ever.
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