Why is poo so taboo?

Posted by Heather Doggett on 12 July 2019

 I recently overheard eldest daughter explaining in detail to her friend what a ‘normal’ poo should look like, much to the horror of said friend – she is her mother’s daughter! 

Poo consists of food, bacteria, mucus and dead cells.   Food travels through eight metres of intestine from the time it enters the mouth of an adult until it comes out the other end; this can take between 24–72 hours. The time it takes for ingested food to travel through the human gut – also called transit time – affects the amount of harmful degradation products produced along the way. This means that transit time is a key factor in a healthy digestive system.  Research suggests that a shorter transit time is associated with improved bowel health. 

Transit time is also a key factor in the activity of the intestinal bacteria and this emphasises the importance of preventing constipation which affects 1 in 7 people.  Constipation can be considered a risk factor for some diseases including bowel cancer, diverticular disease – inflamed or infected pockets in the large bowel – and anal fissures – a tear or sore near the anus.

How experts define constipation can be different to the general public’s perception – they would suggest the following could be used to format a definition of constipation:-

  • abdominal discomfort, pain and bloating – clothes not fitting as well as usual
  • rectal discomfort – bleeding from pushing too hard, pain or burning sensation in the anal area
  • infrequent bowel movements and hard stools – normal can range from three times a day to three times a week
  • sensory dysfunction – not having the urge to go or a sense of incomplete evacuation
  • flatulence and bloating – noisy or smelly wind
  • faecal incontinence – uncontrolled leakage or rectal bleeding

However, most people would include:-

  • spending a long time on the toilet unable to pass a stool
  • straining
  • needing to use laxatives

One key message is that you need to know what is normal for you and then look out for changes.  Any persistent change – either diarrhoea or constipation – of more than 3 weeks should necessitate seeing your GP.

It is generally accepted that our Western diet is linked to constipation and bowel disease.  Epidemiological studies demonstrate far less incidence of bowel cancer and diverticular disease, for example, in countries where a high fibre diet is the norm.  

To help food pass through the colon, eat regularly and follow a diet rich in fibre (fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts, wholegrain bread, pasta and rice).  The recommendation for adults of 30g of fibre per day is on average double our current intake.  Drink plenty of water – this is even more important when you increase the amount of fibre in the diet – fibre adds bulk to stools but water is needed to maintain moistness and, as such, makes it easier to pass through the large bowel and ultimately have a poo. Meat slows down the transit time and should be reduced in the diet whilst physical activity speeds up the rate food passes thorough the bowel.  

If you are a little skittish about discussing your poo, may I recommend a perusal through the Bristol Stool chart – this will allow you to identify your poo without the need to describe it in graphic detail.  

For the rest of us – lets keep talking poo and get rid of the taboo!

Alison Lambert

Occupational Health Nurse