We all know that men and women are different, but it turns out that these differences go beyond the obvious physical characteristics. Even in addition to having different external and internal organs related to reproduction, though, there are anatomical differences that affect the way our digestive systems function. This can be seen in different reactions to some foods and medicines, but it can also be seen in the fact that the frequency and consistency of bowel movements can be different. This is why there are different answers to the question of what “normal” bowel habits look like for men and women.

How Does Digestion Work in General?

The basic purpose of the digestive system is to take ingested whole food and break it down into components that can be used by the body for energy, repair, and to make new cells. Smooth muscle that surrounds the gastrointestinal tract pushes food through the system via a process called peristalsis. Below are the various organs involved in this process:

  • Mouth: As the entry point for the digestive tract, the mouth, teeth, and tongue represent the first step in breaking down food. With the help of saliva, food is ground and mashed until it is soft and pliable enough to be swallowed.
  • Esophagus: After food is swallowed, gravity and peristalsis push the chewed bolus down the esophagus, a fibromuscular tube located in the middle of the chest. Other than some mild mashing from the contraction of the muscles surrounding it, the esophagus mainly acts as a passageway for the bolus. At the bottom, the lower esophageal sphincter automatically opens to allow food to pass into the stomach and then closes to prevent stomach contents from going back up the esophagus.
  • Stomach: Chewed food that enters the stomach is subjected to another wave of peristalsis from the muscles that surround the stomach. This time, though, stomach acid helps break down solids into a semi-liquid substance called chyme. The chyme then passes through the pyloric sphincter into the duodenum.
  • Duodenum: The duodenum is technically the first part of the small intestine, but it is a key juncture in the digestive tract because it is the site where digestive juices are introduced. Bile, produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder, travels through bile ducts where it combines with enzymes from the pancreas. Together, these substances cause the chyme to be broken down even further into absorbable components.
  • Small intestine: After exposure to bile and pancreatic juices, the chyme continues through the long passage of the small intestine. The small intestine averages 22 feet in length, and it is the primary site for nutrients and energy to be absorbed and sent around the body by the circulatory system.
  • Large intestine: By the time the digested food makes it to the large intestine, it is mostly liquid with some indigestible solids (like fiber). As this material travels through the large intestine, water is absorbed and stool begins to form. Additionally, gut bacteria act on the waste materials and perform a variety of functions, from synthesis of certain vitamins to maintaining mucosal barriers.
  • Anus: Once feces takes on its final form in the rectum, it remains in the anal canal until an urge to defecate is felt and a bowel movement occurs.

    When the Digestion Process Goes Awry

    Though digestion works this way in ideal circumstances, in practical terms it can be a much different process for a variety of reasons. Bowel motility, for example, can be affected by too much or too little fiber or water, by a bacterial or viral infection, or through dietary choices. When bowel motility is high, that can lead to not enough water being absorbed as well as subsequent diarrhea. If motility is low, that can mean too much water is absorbed and lead to subsequent constipation and feelings of bloating.

    Differences Between Men and Women

    Even though men and women have the same digestive organs, other anatomical differences in the body cause the GI tract to function a little differently. For instance, because women have wider pelvises than men (as well as additional organs like the uterus and ovaries), their colons are slightly longer and hang a little lower. Women also have less rigid abdominal walls than men. These structural factors make the passage of feces a bit more slow and complicated for women, and that means they are more prone to bloating and constipation.

    The difference between women and men also extends to consistency and type of poop. A study from 2009 found that women experienced a greater range of consistencies as measured by the Bristol Stool Chart. This chart, which defines healthy poop as soft and firm, has seven categories from hard, dry lumps to watery with few, if any, solid pieces. The data showed that men tended to be closer to the middle of the chart with a range of type 3 to type 5 while women had a wider range from type 2 to type 6.

    Overall, these facts mean that the criteria for “normal” bowel habits are different between men and women as well as from person to person. As more data is collected and more research has been done, the recommendations from gastroenterologists have also changed. In general, normal is now defined as anything from 3 bowel movements per week to 3 bowel movements per day. And because food tends to move more slowly through women’s bodies, women will likely have fewer bowel movements compared to men.

    Advice from a Doctor of Gastroenterology

    Bowel habits are unique to each individual, even though there are some demographic groups that tend to have similarities. Men and women tend to have different norms, however, and there are numerous anatomical factors that cause those differences. For ideal digestive health, the most important thing is to be aware of your own normal habits. Many gastrointestinal conditions that are of most concern have similar symptoms, but changing bowel habits can be a unique indicator that something is wrong. Regardless of whether you are a woman or a man, if you have noticed changes to your bowel habits (other than a temporary problem), it might be time to get checked out by a gastroenterologist. At Cary Gastro, we are dedicated to providing excellent digestive care, and we want to help. Please contact us today to request an appointment.