April is Bowel Cancer awareness month, so why not take a moment to consider the health of the important bits of the body that we rarely consider.
It's no surprise that we're often unwilling to talk about our bowels, but if we were more open about the number of trips we take to the bathroom or spoke freely about changes in colour, odour, and texture then it could be truly life changing. Important health issues could be diagnosed and addressed much sooner.
A recent report by continence and ostomy care specialist, Coloplast, found that last year there were nearly 50,000 unplanned admissions to hospitals due to constipation. This averages a staggering 182 people per day.
The survey also reported that one in five people are too embarrassed to speak to their GP about bowel health, which highlights that we need to adopt a different attitude towards how we deal with the problem. It's important to realise that, if you are experiencing bowel issues, you are not alone and most importantly - there are solutions.
Simple diet changes can make a big difference, and a change in bowel habits is usually not something sinister. It's important to listen to your body, and here are a few tips which may help:
• Some people find that gluten affects their digestion and irritates the bowels, but other people might need extra fibre to help their body digest. It's best to try either option in small amounts and eliminate which of the two works better for you. Do give it at least two weeks to see if there is an effect.
• People often say that dried fruit helps with digestion, however it is just as important to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables
• Try to eat meals regularly, this can help your body maintain a consistent routine, allowing it to have a better digestive pattern
• If you feel constipated or bloated, it's worth going for a gentle walk for about 20 minutes. Sitting down for long periods of time can all have an impact on our bowels, so something as little as gentle exercise can relieve stress and help get the bowels in motion
• Drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated - at least 1.5 litres (six to eight cups) per day is often recommended. This also will help the rest of your body to keep your other organs healthy, such as your kidneys
If in doubt, the Bristol stool chart from Calbot Health (see below) is a great way to assess the health of your bowels. The colour and texture can determine whether you have inflammation, are lacking fibre, or can be an indication of more serious health issues. Black stools can be a sign of bleeding or other injuries in your gastrointestinal tract, so it is advised to visit a GP immediately if you spot this.
Overall, it's extremely important to be in tune with your bowels. If your toilet habits have changed, or if you haven't paid a trip to the loo for more than a week then don't sit on it. Speak with a healthcare professional to find out what options would work best for you as soon as you notice changes. And when you do seek help, consider all the options available so you get the appropriate treatment for you; laxatives or rehydration sachets may not always be the right answer.
By speaking about your bowel issues openly it will decrease your need to seek urgent care. There are people here to help - no matter how taboo the subject may initially seem to be.
Dr Anton Emmanuel is a consultant in neuro-gastroenterology at University College London, and consultant gastroenterologist at University College Hospital and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. He is also a member of the not-for-profit Bowel Interest Group (BIG), which works to raise awareness of the importance of bowel health, and encourage healthcare professionals to give bowels the attention they deserve.