Despite the fact that pooing is a normal bodily function, over a third of us still find it a taboo subject.
We haven’t always felt this way. According to Dr. Barbara Penner, historian and author of ‘‘Bathroom”, pooing in pairs in an outhouse was the norm prior to the Victorian era, and shame or stigma around pooing wasn’t a thing until the arrival of the flushable toilet, when pooing became a private activity.
So why should we reframe our shame about pooing? Well, beyond it being an essential function that enables your body to eliminate waste, paying attention to your poo can reveal A LOT about your gut health. The art of stool gazing provides a lot of useful information about what’s going on in your gut and in some cases, can be lifesaving.
Ever wondered what’s involved in pooping?
Despite that fact pooing is a normal and necessary bodily function, that doesn’t mean it’s always problem-free. To understand more, I asked friend and expert Pelvic Floor Physiotherapist, Rosie Cardale for the lowdown on the logistics of pooing.
“It’s easy to take the mechanics that allow us to poo for granted but it actually involves a complex and coordinated conversation between your brain, your pelvic floor and rectum. Even before you get the urge to poo, a clever reflex in your rectum (called the recto-anal inhibitory reflex or RAIR) is busy analysing what is being delivered from the colon and whether it is firm poo, liquid poo, or gas.
Once it’s analysed the contents it will then communicate with your brain - ‘OK it’s wind, you’re safe to let it go!’ or ‘right pal, this one requires a trip to the bathroom’. This reflex is what prevents poo from making an appearance outside of planned bathroom breaks.
When you get the message that it's time to poo, you head to the toilet and the action of sitting on the loo seat should trigger a relaxation response in your pelvic floor and rectum. One of the pelvic floor muscles (called the puborectalis) wraps around the rectum in a U shape. Usually this muscle is contracted, which keeps a 90 degree “bend'' in your rectum and keeps you continent. In order to poo, this muscle needs to relax, which allows the rectum to straighten and lengthen creating a clear passageway for waste to exit the body. This means that the position you sit in can make a difference to how easy it is to pass a poo, with squatting being the most optimal choice for a comfortable poo.
Issues can occur at any level of this clever system, and dysfunction within the pelvic floor muscles can cause changes to your bowel function. If you experience changes or struggles with pooing, then it is worth considering whether your pelvic floor is functioning as well as it can. Creating good bowel habits can help this muscle function better (see below), as can doing regular pelvic floor exercises."
5 tweaks you can make to your toilet habits to help you poo more comfortably
When we poo, we often need a small rise in pressure in the abdomen (belly) to get the bowel motion started. This can be created through breath. It’s a good habit to have slow relaxed breathing when you’re on the toilet. Too much breath holding or straining when we are on the loo can actually lessen the power of the pelvic floor.
Try this tip the next time you are on the loo – lean forward onto your knees, take your hand and make a fist. Place your lips against your index finger and thumb and breathe into it as if you are blowing into a trumpet. Try three long breaths like this to initiate a poo and then continue until you are finished.
2. Step it up
Using a step or stool, raise your feet off the floor (so that you are in more of a squatting position) when sitting on the loo to help you achieve an optimal pooing position. By getting your knees above your hips you’ll help the muscles in your pelvic floor relax. If you don’t have a stool, a toilet roll under each foot will do the same job.
3. Fire up the natural urge to go
Most people poo in the morning thanks to the gastrocolic reflex, an involuntary action which moves food and waste through your gut in the morning and after meals. Certain habits can help you take advantage of this reflex, including:
- A hot drink first thing in the morning
- A substantial breakfast
- Giving yourself enough time in your morning routine to open your bowels rather than rushing off
Sitting on the loo even if you don’t have the urge can also stimulate your bowels to open. If you haven’t had a poo within a few minutes of sitting on the toilet, get up and return when you do get a natural urge to go.
4. Eat plenty of fibre
Fibre (found in foods like fruits, vegetables and wholemeal bread) is a great normaliser when it comes to pooing, helping with both hard and loose stools. You can learn more about fibre here.
5. Stop scrolling
The majority of Brits (57%) admit to using their phone on the toilet, but sitting on the loo for extended periods (think 10-15 minutes) isn’t recommended, because it may increase the risk of haemorrhoids, due to pooling of blood and increase pressure in your rectum and anus. If you haven’t been able to poop within a few minutes, get up and do something else then return when the urge returns.
When to seek help from your doctor
Remember that you won’t have the same type of poo every day and that’s OK. In many cases changes in poo are down to changes in lifestyle or circumstances. A long flight may leave you constipated, drinking a lot of alcohol can trigger loose poo. In these examples (and there are many more), symptoms and changes in your poo will be temporary.
However, if you’re experiencing gut symptoms or changes in poo that persist for longer than a couple of weeks, it’s important to chat with your GP, so that they check there’s no underlying cause.