Signs your digestive tract is unhealthy


Regular bowel movements are the top indicator of a healthy digestive tract. While every person is different, having a bowel movement daily or several times a week is typical. Abnormal bowel habits may indicate an underlying health condition. Although it can feel awkward, don’t be embarrassed to speak with your doctor if you think you are constipated or experiencing other abnormal bowel movements.

A change in bowel habits can in some cases indicate a serious condition, like thyroid imbalance or colon cancer. Be sure to check with your physician if you experience new constipation that lasts more than two weeks.

Signs and risks associated with constipation

If you’re having fewer than three bowel movements per week, you may be constipated. For children, constipation is categorized as fewer than two bowel movements per week.

These symptoms often accompany constipation:

  • Dry, hard stools that are painful or difficult to pass
  • Abdominal swelling, bloating, pain or an inability to pass gas
  • Frequent nausea or vomiting with or without fever
  • Lower back pain
  • Blood in the stool
  • A feeling that your bowel does not empty entirely

Severe or long-term constipation can increase your risk of developing serious conditions such as:

  • Anal fissures: Small tears in the anus
  • Hemorrhoids: Painful, swollen veins around the anus
  • Fecal impaction: Feces hardens in the intestines and the colon can’t push it out of the body
  • Rectal prolapse: The rectum drops through the anus, often the result of straining

Develop healthy bowel habits with at-home care

Most people can develop healthy bowel habits after a few weeks of at-home care, including:

  • Eating fiber-rich foods: Fiber bulks up stool and makes it soft so it passes easily. Good sources of fiber include beans, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Avoid processed foods, candies and red meat because they can lead to constipation.
  • Staying hydrated: Drink six to eight cups of liquid each day because the moisture softens the stool.
  • Exercising regularly: Just 30 minutes of walking a day can help stimulate regular bowel movements.
  • Bowel training: Try eliminating your bowels at the same time every day — for example, 15 to 45 minutes after eating a meal — to establish a regular habit.
  • Using laxatives: Laxatives should be used only as directed and with caution. Overusing them could lead to decreased bowel function and dependency. You should talk with your doctor or pharmacist about which laxative can help provide short-term relief.

You should seek care if your symptoms don’t resolve with two weeks of at-home measures or if you’ve gone more than a week without a bowel movement. Your doctor will investigate whether there is an underlying health condition causing severe constipation. In some cases, he or she may recommend additional therapies, such as:

  • Constipation medications
  • Biofeedback therapy to retrain digestive tract muscles
  • Surgery to remove blockages or repair a defective colon

If you are concerned about your bowel health, contact your primary care provider (PCP). Your PCP can offer guidance and resources, and when necessary, refer you to the UCLA Division of Digestive Diseases. If you need a PCP, call 800-825-2631.