A taboo subject
Have you ever wondered why bowel movements and stools are taboo subjects? There are many reasons. From earliest childhood we are conditioned to regard stools as dirty, disgusting and even dangerous, things that must be disposed of as quickly as possible.
In western culture, the act of passing stools is an unfortunate necessity and an entirely private matter. As for the organs that produce stools, we prefer not to think about them and, if we do, we see them as mysterious, unpredictable and rather disgraceful.
Why is this?
There are grounds for some of these beliefs and attitudes. Stools are usually smelly – sometimes appallingly so. Diseases can be spread from people’s stools to other people. The act of opening the bowels is an undignified affair, best done in private, and sometimes it is uncomfortable. The colon and rectum, which make the stools, are mysterious organs – perhaps the least understood organs in the body. And who has not been embarrassed by passing wind in company?
Let’s look at it differently
Distaste and reticence, however, can go too far. Stools and wind do not have to be smelly – odour depends to some extent on what we eat. Stools spread disease only when people are careless about washing their hands or when sewage gets into water supplies. Opening the bowels need not be uncomfortable. Our knowledge of the bowels has increased enormously in recent years and doctors can now actually diagnose and cure or relieve nearly all the disorders of the bowels.
Disorders of the bowels are extremely common. In fact, most people suffer from problems with bowel function or from piles (haemorrhoids), or both, at some time in their lives. At any given time, one in five of the population is experiencing discomfort from the bowels, and, over a lifetime, one in 40 of us will develop cancer in the bowel.
The food that we eat and the way that we live our lives have enormous effects on our bowels. This book tries to explain all these matters: it will help you to keep the workings of your bowels comfortable and it will tell you what to do if things go wrong. Medical terms are explained in the Glossary.
Some words and phrases
The word ‘bowels’ is one of those vague words that can mean different things at different times. Sometimes it is used to describe both the large and the small intestines. Often, as in this book, the term is limited to the large intestine or colon, which is the last part of the alimentary canal or digestive tube.
When people speak of ‘using the bowels’, ‘moving the bowels’, ‘emptying the bowels’ or ‘opening the bowels’ they are trying to speak politely of that unmentionable activity that is correctly called defecation. A less technical way of saying the same thing is ‘passing a stool’. Stools, faeces and bowel motions all mean the same thing to doctors. It is strange that these words are rarely used in polite conversation; most people use roundabout expressions instead.
Gas passed from the rectum (back passage) is properly called flatus. Many people refer to it as wind or flatulence, but this is confusing because other people use the terms wind and flatulence to mean belching (burping) or to mean bloated feelings or gurglings from the abdomen.
‘Fart’ has the advantage of meaning only one thing, but it is even less acceptable in polite conversation than faeces. Probably the nearest we have to an expression that is both unambiguous and reasonably polite is ‘voiding’ wind.