A person reading the newspaper on the toilet

How to Have More Regular Bowel Movements

Last updated: July 2022

Many people struggle with constipation. Living in the rushed world that we do, combined with the great amounts of processed foods that we eat and a global sense of unrest, can all contribute to constipation.

Straining to have bowel movements is not only uncomfortable, but it can lead to anxiety about why our bodies are working against us, versus working with us.

As a pelvic floor physical therapist, I have taken classes all about the “mechanics of defection” (this means how to poop). When we fall into habits that don’t abide by the natural laws of pooping as nature intended, then we can run into trouble with hemorrhoids, anal fissures, severe abdominal distension, and bloating.

Therefore, it is important to understand what drives regular bowel movements so we can achieve them.

The digestion process

When food enters our mouths and we start chewing, peristalsis begins in our digestive system. Peristalsis is a wave-like contraction of the smooth muscles of the tube that is our digestive tract, from throat to anus.1

Peristalsis is under involuntary control that we can initiate by eating, but it proceeds very much on its own. These wave-like contractions are responsible for ushering food through our bodily systems so that digestion can occur; whatever healthy substances that enter the body are assimilated and whatever waste is left over can be voided.

Once the waste products gather in the rectum and it becomes full of stool, the body initiates a signal of urgency to the human. It’s time to poop!

Here is where we run into problems. Notice that the word “parasympathetic” is part of the name of this reflex. This implies that the calming part of our nervous systems must be engaged in order for the complete evacuation of the bowel to occur.2

How stress affects the gut

If you have ever taken a week off of work or recall a time in your life of minimal stress, you may have noticed that your bowel movements were a lot more natural and efficient.

However, most of us don’t live in a way where our parasympathetic systems are in charge. Rather, the sympathetic (aka “fight or flight”) system is the captain of the ship when we have stress at work, feel pressured by the boss, or have young children bickering over dinner.2

The sympathetic system works against the parasympathetic system and inhibits defecation. This tells us why your grandfather who took the newspaper to the bathroom and sat there while relaxing was really onto something good!

Now it is time to tie this information together. Chewing food and swallowing it stimulates peristalsis, those wave-like contractions that push food through the system.2

Having a more complete bowel movement

Once the waste enters the rectum, the parasympathetic defecation reflex tells us to sit down, calm down, and have a complete bowel movement. How can we capitalize on these two events to poop more regularly?

Well, one place to start would be to arise from bed a little bit earlier than you usually would. Chewing food very shortly after waking will stimulate peristalsis in your digestive tract.

Smoothies don’t work as well to this end, because the act of chewing signals the peristalsis to begin. Once you have had something to eat, it is ideal to be at home for your parasympathetic system to remain in control.

Spending time in a comfortable environment can stimulate the parasympathetic defecation reflex. The essence of time is crucial here, so you don’t feel rushed.

The second that you put your key into the ignition to drive to work, get on the subway or log into your computer at home to start your workday is the time when your sympathetic system will take over. It can be a lot more difficult to poop once your nervous system has switched into “work mode”.

Here’s the windup: we need peristalsis to push food through our systems. We also need our parasympathetic systems to allow our bowels to empty without straining.

Some great tips to achieve more regular bowel movements are to wake up earlier so you are not rushing out of the house, chew something within a few minutes of waking, and be at home when your parasympathetic defecation reflex comes a’ knocking.

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