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Bowel Problems

Find out what causes constipation and diarrhea and how to get rid of both.

By
Rob Lamberts, MD,
April 12, 2010
Episode #042

Page 1 of 2

Today I will be talking about bowel problems. Ya gotta poop, but too much or too little of it will cause all sorts of trouble.

Before I begin, don’t forget to sign up for my Facebook page, where I answer questions that don’t make it into these articles, get your ideas for future podcasts, and generally have an uproarious time with my listeners and readers.

How Many Times a Day Should You Poop?

So what about your bowels? Normally, people have bowel movements anywhere from three times per week to three per day. As long as they are of normal consistency, neither end of the spectrum is considered problematic. 

Constipation and diarrhea are defined not by the frequency with which a person goes, but the consistency of the movement when they do. (Get it, Doo?) 

Constipation and Diarrhea

Constipation is defined as having hard and dry stools, which are often difficult to pass. Diarrhea, on the other hand, is loose or watery bowel movements. So as you see, the real culprit in either of these conditions is water--either too little or too much. That is important, because fixing either problem involves restoring the proper water to poop ratio (referred to by scientists as the WTP ratio--not really, but it sounds good).

What Causes Constipation?

The most common cause of constipation is dietary. People who don’t eat enough fiber are much more prone to constipation, as are people who don’t drink enough fluids. Here are some other possible causes of constipation:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome

  • Thyroid problems

  • Medications

  • Excessive intake of iron

Rarely, a sudden onset of constipation can be from colon cancer

What Causes Diarrhea?

Constipation and diarrhea are defined not by the frequency with which a person goes, but the consistency of the movement when they do.

Diarrhea is generally caused by infection--usually by viruses. A typical case of viral diarrhea lasts only a few days; anything lasting over a week should be evaluated. Bacterial diarrhea is more serious, causing more abdominal pain, fever, and sometimes blood in the bowel movements. 

Here are some other causes of diarrhea:

  • Diet: Eating too much sugar can cause sugars to pass into the colon, making the bacteria there get all excited and cause diarrhea. Other things like sorbitol, a sweetener in some sugarless candy, can also cause diarrhea through osmosis.

  • Malabsorption: Some people don’t digest sugars or fats properly. The most common sugar malabsorption is lactose intolerance, where undigested milk sugar passes into the colon, causing a bacteria festival resulting in diarrhea. The most common fat malabsorption comes from gallbladder disease, where fat passes into the colon, resulting in really nasty, light-colored diarrhea.

  • Irritable bowel syndrome: People can have either constipation or diarrhea from this condition, in which the nerves in the colon are messed up.

  • Medications: Though other medications can result in diarrhea, antibiotics are a main culprit; they can cause a very serious overgrowth of the bacteria c. difficile, which causes bad abdominal cramps, fever, and bloody diarrhea.

  • Parasites: A single-celled parasite called giardia causes bad diarrhea in campers who don’t sterilize their water, and in young children.

Emotional stress can also upset your stomach and cause diarrhea.

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