ABOUT YOUR BOWEL

The bowel is a tube-like organ that is part of the digestive system

The digestive system starts at the mouth and finishes at the anus (back passage). The digestive system breaks down and absorbs the food and fluids you consume to provide energy to your body.

As the food passes from one part of the bowel to another, it stays long enough for the fluids and nutrients to be absorbed into your body or expelled as waste through the anus. This waste is called faeces, bowel motions, stools or 'poo'.

The bowel is divided into two parts: the small bowel and the large bowel (also called the small intestines and large intestines).

The small bowel

The small bowel (or small intestine) is about 6-8m long. It is called small because it is narrow (about 2cm wide). The small bowel absorbs the nutrients from the food you eat and the remaining waste forms faeces.

The large bowel

The large bowel (also called the large intestine or colon) is about 2m long. It is called large because it is wide (about 7cm).

Faeces enters the large bowel as liquid. As it passes through the large bowel towards the rectum, water is absorbed back into your body leaving a more solid waste.

The rectum is the last part of the large bowel, just inside your bottom. It stores your faeces until you are ready to go to the toilet. Faeces is expelled from your body through the anus. The pelvic floor muscles ensure the anus stays closed until you are ready to go to the toilet.

Signs of a healthy bowel

Being ‘regular’ is a way of describing good bowel habits or normal bowel function. We often talk about our bowels being regular but this is often misunderstood as meaning that you go to the toilet to pass faeces every day. It’s common for people to empty their bowel once a day, although it’s still normal to go more or 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 Bristol Stool Chart is an easy way to identify what your faeces should look like.

The bowel usually wants to empty about 30 minutes after a meal (commonly breakfast), but this can vary from person to person.

There’s more to good bowel function than just being regular. For example, you should be able to:

  • hold on for a short time after you feel the first urge to go to the toilet
  • pass a bowel motion within about a minute of sitting down on the toilet
  • pass a bowel motion easily and without pain – you shouldn’t be straining on the toilet or struggling to pass a bowel motion that is hard and dry
  • completely empty your bowel when you pass a motion – you don’t have to return to the toilet soon after to pass more.

Bowel control problems

People who pass bowel motions at the wrong time or in the wrong place may be experiencing poor bowel control, or faecal incontinence. They may also pass wind when they don't want to.

Bowel control problems are more common than you think. About 1 in 20 people experience a bowel control problem and it affects both men and women.  It's more common as you get older, but young people can also have poor bowel control. In some cases, people with poor bowel control also have poor bladder control and may leak urine (urinary incontinence).

Seek help

In many cases incontinence can be prevented, better managed and even cured. Talk to your family doctor or contact the National Continence Helpline on 1800 33 00 66.

The National Continence Helpline is staffed by continence nurse specialists who offer free and confidential information, advice and support. They also provide a wide range of continence-related resources and referrals to local services.

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Last Updated: Wed 15, Jul 2020
Last Reviewed: Mon 23, Mar 2020