What is normal bowel function?

Bowel function is individual

Many people are not sure if their bowel function is “normal,” which is probably because bowel function is a difficult topic to discuss, even with a physician. Bowel function is individual, and rather than one “normal” type of bowel function that fits everyone, there is a spectrum of what would be considered in the range of normal.
Normal bowel function is defined as the regular passage of soft, formed stools. Being ‘regular’ is a way of describing good bowel habits or normal bowel function. 
The word “regular” is often misunderstood as meaning that you go to the toilet to pass faeces every day. It is common to empty your bowel once a day, although it is still normal to do this less often. 
Being regular really means that soft, yet well-formed bowel motions are easily passed and that this happens anywhere from 1–3 times a day to 3 times a week.
The bowel usually wants to empty about 30 minutes after a meal (commonly breakfast), but bowel movements can vary from person to person.
However, there is more to good bowel function than just being regular.

For example, you should be able to:

  • Wait for a short time after you feel the first urge to go to the toilet
  • Pass a stool within about a minute of sitting down on the toilet
  • You should not be straining on the toilet or struggling to pass a stool that is hard, dry or lumpy
  • Pass a stool easily and without pain
  • Completely empty your bowel when you pass a stool – that you do not have to return to the toilet soon after to pass more.

Most healthy adults will experience diarrhoea or constipation at some point, but a consistent change in bowel habits should always be discussed with a healthcare professional. 

Bowel Dysfunction A Comprehensive Guide for Healthcare Professionals, Chapter 6 and 7 by Brigitte Collins and Elissa Bradshaw, Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Heaton, K W & Lewis, S J 1997, ‘Stool form scale as a useful guide to intestinal transit time’. Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology, vol.32, no.9, pp.920 – 924. Retrieved on 2/3/2007.

NICE Guidance. https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg49/resources/faecal-incontinence-in-adults-management-pdf-975455422405

Based on the Rome IV criteria for constipation

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