Coded yellow.

Sunday 17 December 2000


Pic of the day: A good start would be to lift the lid before use. (And yes, I've artificially introduced that fearful symmetry.)

Defecation basics

It's a gentle irony: Eating is a fun-filled social activity of good standing; but the eventual excretion of that same food is a solitary, shameful and often uncomfortable process. And yet, to warp an old aphorism, you shit what you eat. "Take control of the input, and you shall become master of the output" to quote our fictive chairman yet again.

There are of course good reasons why the elimination of solid waste from the body is regarded with deep scepticism. Most notably, the stuff is absolutely teeming with bacteria. It can be argued - and sometimes is - that these are bacteria which we have survived, and indeed most of them are probably useful to our digestion. Even so, millenia of experience shows that the more gut bacteria there is in the food and drinking water, the more people get sick from it. So it makes sense to discourage toddlers from playing with feces, which they otherwise may like to do. And it makes sense to encourage as early as possible a control with the bodily eliminations.

There is also the small point of the placement of anus in relative proximity to the genitals. For practical purposes, it is common to cover up all of these areas and then some, so that they gather as little attention as possible. Yeah, right.


It has long been noted by psychologists - at least child psychologists - that the potty training takes place as a time when the psyche is rather open to impressions. The child is almost all emotion, with very limited powers of logic, and its experience is very limited. No wonder then that one of the first major projects in life - potty training - makes a lasting impression. For a while it was common to divide people into types based on these reactions. The anal-retentive being the most famous: These people, supposedly starting as children who tried to keep the excrements as long as possible before defecating, are obsessed by order and routine and rules. To this very day this personality is called "anal" by its detractors. I am not sure if anybody still believes in those theories.

But what is certain is that there is still a lot of awkwardness. And I cannot help but notice that schools, last time I checked, did nothing to enlighten their pupils on the mysteries of defecation. The names and reigns of long dead kings, yes. Whether to fold or scrunge the toilet paper, no. Somehow people pick up habits anyway, such as the quaint notion that one should use the left hand for applying toilet paper. This may once have had some value, but that was before running water was present at the appropriate sites. For a while now these sites have been known as lavatories, washrooms. (Among the countless other pretty names.) Should be a pretty strong hint to wash your hands, buddy. I notice that some people have evidently not learned this at school.

And the passage of food through the digestive tract ... children often have quite hazy notions about this. Since it is common to feel the need to excrete a relatively short time after a large meal, they often assume that it is the food and drink respectively from that meal which leave the body. In reality, the normal passage of food through the stomach and guts take 1-2 days, though it can take noticeably longer in some cases. It will happen, however, sooner or later. The reason why many people feel the urge to eliminate shortly after a meal is probably the pressure from the filling stomach, which triggers movement in the musculature in the guts and eventually also in the bladder. It is also to some extent a matter of habit.


Overall, the brain takes a rather active role in regulating the speed of our guts. After successful potty training, we become able to delay defecation for quite a while. The colon - the large intestine - will in some cases slow down its movement when there's no exit anyway. The need seems to be gone. But of course it's not that easy. Instead, we eventually get a constipation - a mass of drying feces that remain in the tail end of our guts and block any further advances. These can be uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Over the years, the pressure is likely to create painful haemorrhoids (your spellage may vary). In predisposed people, there can even be damage to the wall of the guts, leading to painful and even dangerous infections.

In the western world, constipation is pretty much the rule rather than the exception. The reason for this is the diet. If we excreted all that we ate, we would starve to death. We absorb some of the food; and over time, we have turned to foodstuffs that are absorbed almost completely, leaving only a small residue. White flour, sugar, simple starches, fat. In nature these are accompanied by complex starches like cellulose and other indigestible fibers. Try adding a little fruit or raw vegetables to your diet. Of course, in these cases you may have a problem with long meetings...

Emotions can not just stop our digestion, but also accelerate it. This typically happens when we are very nervous: Before an exam, on our way to the dentist, on the Big Date. Also various foodstuffs can work this way: Coffee and tea and chocolate and liquorice, at least, in my experience. I have heard that black tea, cola and chocolate can actually slow down a hyperactive gut, but I doubt this as it contradicts my experience through several years.

A special case is yoghurt. Highly recommended for those who don't have a milk allergy, it contains bacteria that survive deep into the gut and aid in the digestion of fibers. Recommended to eat along with the fruit and veggies. It will generally work to normalize the gut, whether it is too fast or too slow. But the story about the long lifespan of yoghurt eaters is based on a horrible mistake: The yoghurt-eating old men of Georgia (then a part of USSR) had in reality assumed the identity of older relatives, to avoid the military draft. Their average life expectancy was lower than ours. But probably not because of the yoghurt.

It seems that chronic constipation contriubutes to the risk for colorectal cancer, a main killer in Europe and the USA. In developing countries, diarrhea is a major cause of death, especially for children. So it's not quite unimportant what goes on in that end either. But usually, defecation won't kill you. It just feels that way sometimes.

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