Here’s How Often You Should Have a Bowel Movement, Says a Gastroenterologist

How frequently you should defecate? A gastroenterology doctor offers a few rules of thumb and a helpful little formula to help you know how often you should go.

Has it been a day or two since you’ve been able to go to the bathroom? Chances are, you can relax: plenty of gastroenterologists would tell you this can be totally normal. While it might be disconcerting not to have a bowel movement per a typical schedule, the Cleveland Clinic‘s blog suggests that how often you should go number two varies from person to person, and can change even for the most regular individual. (This can be the cases in situations such as when you start a new diet, medication, or exercise routine, or, say, if your hormones or health condition change, such as if you get pregnant.) For anytime you encounter questions about your regularity, here a gastroenterologist offers a few rules of thumb and a helpful little formula to help you determine when it’s time to be concerned.

Many experts say “three and three” is the basic rule: at least three times a week, or up to three times a day for a normal bowel movement cycle. If you poop multiple times a day, many sources will tell you that’s a-OK, as long as the stool is easy for you to pass.

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If you find yourself pooping less frequently, Brian A. Brunson, MD with Gastro Health in Birmingham, AL, says there isn’t a specific duration of constipation that indicates a severe problem. “So many factors are involved in regulating bowel habits,” Dr. Brunson says. “I typically encourage patients to seek medical attention if they go a week or longer without moving their bowels, or if they have associated abdominal pain or distention, fevers, chills, vomiting, obstipation (failure to pass gas), weight loss over 10 pounds or blood in the stool.”

If your symptoms aren’t as severe, here’s how to have a regular bowel movement.

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How to have a regular bowel movement

According to Dr. Brunson, your food intake actually plays a significant role in how often you poop. “A balanced diet high in lean protein, fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, along with increased water and fiber intake, are the most important factors that promote a regular bowel pattern,” he says.

What about laxatives? Dr. Brunson says to actually try to avoid stimulant laxatives or antidiarrheals as much as possible. Instead, if you’re not already active, talk with your doctor about whether you should be moving more. “Regular exercise is also helpful, as individuals with a sedentary lifestyle are more likely to have problems with constipation,” says Dr. Brunson.

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Keep the color in mind

Once you’ve successfully had a BM (yes!), it can be helpful to take a look at the color, as the color of feces can actually be an indicator of your overall health.

“The color of stool is variable and influenced by several factors, including diet and medications,” says Dr. Brunson, adding: “There are certain stool colors, though, that should indicate the need for urgent evaluation by a medical professional. Jet black, tarry stools often are a sign of upper gastrointestinal bleeding (usually the stomach or small intestine). Clay or pale-colored stools can be a symptom of a disease of the liver, biliary tree, or pancreas. Generally speaking, brown or green stools are considered normal.”

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Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.