The frequency and consistency of bowel movements can be an important indicator of health. However, as a standalone symptom, having more bowel movements than normal is not a cause for concern.
Many people associate frequent bowel movements with diarrhea, which involves loose or watery stools. However, a wide variety of factors could cause frequent solid bowel movements. These factors include a person’s diet, food allergies, and underlying health conditions.
In this article, we explore how often bowel movements are likely to occur in people with a good health status. We also cover the causes and treatment of frequent solid bowel movements and explain when to see a doctor.
The frequency and consistency of bowel movements can be important indicators of an individual’s health.
However, health experts do not cite a specific number of bowel movements as being normal or healthy.
Having fewer than three bowel movements in a week may indicate constipation, particularly if the stools are hard and difficult to pass.
These are general standards and will not apply to everyone. It is important that people consider what is typical for them and take action if they notice any significant or persistent changes in their toilet habits.
Research shows that a wide variety of factors can cause frequent bowel movements:
- Infections of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract: Infections, which may be due to viruses, bacteria, or parasites, can frequently cause short-term bowel problems. One study found that many children with frequent nondiarrheal bowel movements have a non-polio enterovirus (NPEV).
- Food allergies: These cause the immune system to overreact to certain foods, mistakenly treating them as pathogens. About 3–4% of adults in Westernized countries have food allergies, which can be serious if they affect a person’s ability to breathe.
- Caffeine: Due to the laxative effect of caffeine, the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders say that more than two or three cups of coffee or tea a day can cause diarrhea.
- Celiac disease: This disease affects about 1 in every 100 people worldwide. People with celiac disease experience a full immune system response when they eat wheat, barley, or rye. This response can affect a person’s bowel movements and damage their small intestine.
- Lactose intolerance: This condition affects up to 70% of the world’s population. People with this condition cannot consume dairy products without having intestinal problems.
- Exercise: Exercise is healthful overall, but some individuals, such as long-distance runners, may notice powerful urges to move their bowels when working out. Some may even experience diarrhea. Experts suggest that this effect is due to reduced blood flow to the colon.
- Gall bladder problems: Conditions such as Habba syndrome indicate a link between poor gall bladder function and frequent bowel movements.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): The most common form of functional diarrhea, IBS can also cause constipation. Some people with IBS may experience both symptoms.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are two forms of this immune system disorder, which causes chronic inflammation of the GI tract and can lead to long-term damage.
- Medications or drug abuse: Many medications can cause digestive problems, including aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antibiotics, and blood pressure medications.
- Cancer: Changes in bowel habits can be a sign of colon cancer, particularly if they occur along with other symptoms, such as anemia, unintentional weight loss, fatigue, blood in the stool, and bleeding from the anus.
Frequent bowel movements that are not diarrhea often respond well to self-care, such as using over-the-counter (OTC) medications for symptom relief.
Treatment recommendations for IBS, a common cause of frequent bowel movements, include:
- adjusting the diet to support healthy digestion
- engaging in regular physical activity
- taking steps to manage stress, such as practicing mindfulness or yoga
- treating symptoms of constipation, diarrhea, or stomach pain with OTC or prescription medications, such as loperamide, laxatives, or antispasmodics.
Experts recommend seeing a doctor if diarrhea lasts more than 2 days.
Frequent solid bowel movements do not present the same risk of dehydration as diarrhea. However, a person who is frequently passing solid stools should see a doctor if they:
- develop a fever
- notice blood in their stool
- start vomiting or feeling nauseated
- experience painful stomach cramps
- cannot control their bowel movements
Adhering to a healthful lifestyle can sometimes help people avoid frequent solid bowel movements. Dietary practices that may be particularly useful include:
- adding foods high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, to the diet gradually
- limiting the intake of gluten and products containing gluten
- seeking a doctor’s advice on supplementing the diet with probiotics to increase the “good” bacteria in the gut
Other practices that may help maintain a healthy frequency of bowel movements include:
The main thing to consider regarding frequent solid bowel movements is whether this pattern represents a change for the individual.
Most of the time, changes in bowel habits are short-term responses to a particular food, a passing virus, or too much coffee, and a person can resolve them with self-care.
Adopting a healthful lifestyle, following a well-balanced diet, and learning to manage stress can help maintain the regularity of bowel movements.