You know the feeling when you have to poop, but there’s no toilet in reach or you’re too scared to stink up the stall at work? Then, instead of listening to Mother Nature, you end up holding in your poop?
Let’s face it, no matter how many times we hear “everybody poops,” it doesn’t make the endeavor any less awkward in public settings.
In honor of Constipation Awareness Month, we wanted to ask the big question: How bad is it, really, to hold in your poop?
On average, mammals take 12 seconds to poop. But if you’re constantly holding in your poops because your coworker tends to run to the bathroom the same time as you everyday, then that might not be the case for you. Doing that for a couple hours every once in a while isn’t causing big problems, says Jonathan Rosenberg, gastroenterologist and American Gastroenterological Association expert, but it’s best to go when you gotta go.
“If you’re holding in stool, you’re more likely to suck all the water out of it, making it drier and drier, and therefore harder and harder to go,” Rosenberg says. “You get into this vicious cycle of a learned behavior perpetuating the unwanted effect, which is the constipation.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, about 42 million Americans experience constipation—since poop-related topics are hard to talk about there are likely countless more silent sufferers.
“Constipation is when you have infrequent or hard-to-pass bowel movements (meaning they are painful or you have to strain), have hard stools or feel like your bowel movements are incomplete. Infrequent means less than three bowel movements a week.” – American Gastroenterological Society
Thankfully, there are effective treatment options for people suffering from occasional and chronic constipation. Prune juice and drug store medications like Metamucil can do the trick for many who are constipated due to a meal or medication (life experience yo). But if you’re chronically constipated — you have infrequent bowel movements weeks at a time and your stool is basically a riverbed of dry rocks, ouch — you may want to seek alternatives.
And that probably shouldn’t be coffee. Drinking coffee often makes people poop (find out why), but Rosenberg never recommends that people drink caffeine to treat constipation. “I think it’s a pretty unhealthy way to deal with your symptoms,” he says.
“They’re safe to take on a daily basis for long term,” Rosenberg says. “They don’t get absorbed into your body in any meaningful way, so your hair can’t fall out and your skin can’t turn green.”
So there you have it: Occasionally holding in your poop probably won’t hurt you. But do it often, and it can turn into an unconscious habit with uncomfortable and bothersome consequences.
If you’re stoved up, remember these wise words that Rosenberg told me: Pooping isn’t rocket science, it’s just plumbing.