Renew’s Checkup Challenge: What your bathroom habits reveal about your health

You may not pay much attention to how often you’re using the bathroom, but it’s information worth tracking. On Day 3 of the challenge, we help you get a handle on your frequency and show you why it matters.  

Maryn Liles
Women drinking water

The Renew Checkup Challenge is here to help you take charge of your health in a new way. Over 7 days, you’ll prepare for your next annual wellness visit, learn how to build a stronger relationship with your provider and become a better advocate for your health. Because no one ever said you had to take the changes that can come with getting older sitting down.

Maybe you feel like you’re urinating 15 times a day (and don’t always make it to the bathroom). Or perhaps you can’t quite remember how long it has been since you had a bowel movement. Whatever the symptoms, a change in your bathroom habits can be an important clue to your overall health.

When you notice pain or a change in frequency, it might mean there’s an issue with your gut or your urinary or rectal health.

Your rectum, urethra, bladder and, if you’re a woman, gynecological system are only a couple of centimeters apart. And issues with them are often interconnected, says gastroenterologist Douglas A. Drossman, M.D., professor emeritus of medicine and psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.

Urogenital problems, as they are called, may occasionally occur with age, Dr. Drossman says, but more often they’re related to other factors, such as having given birth multiple times, trauma or diseases that lead to weakened muscles.

“The muscles can usually maintain their tone even with aging, unless something intervenes,” he explains. And that’s when accidental leaks are more likely to happen.

In fact, in the University of Michigan’s 2018 National Poll on Healthy Aging, more than 4 in 10 women 50 or older reported urinary leakage. It’s upsetting when it happens, of course, but if it does, know that you’re not the only one.

Ready to get answers — and relief? Take this quiz to check your symptoms and learn possible causes.

To keep track of your responses, turn to your Checkup Challenge Activity Guide (download yours here). If you answer “yes” or even “sometimes” to any of the questions below, be sure to talk to your primary care provider (PCP) to find the best treatments for you.

1) Do you ever leak stool or urine?

  • Yes
  • Sometimes
  • No

Answered yes or sometimes? Here’s what it could be: Incontinence. This is when the sphincter muscles in the bladder or rectum become weakened, causing urine or stool to leak out. The condition can be caused by aging, but it’s more often associated with having given birth multiple times, or trauma or injury to the pelvic floor, Dr. Drossman says.

Since there are several potential causes of incontinence, start by checking in with your PCP. They may recommend doing Kegel exercises, which strengthen the muscles that control urination.

Other strategies include scheduling regular bathroom trips (even if you don’t feel like you have to go) and learning bladder-training techniques.

 

2) Do you have difficulty passing stool or strain to have a bowel movement?

  • Yes
  • Sometimes
  • No

Answered yes or sometimes? Here’s what it could be: Pelvic floor dyssynergia. This is an inability to relax your pelvic floor muscles when going to the bathroom. It’s often the result of pressure from pregnancy on the pelvic floor, an injury from natural childbirth or even a car accident.

Practicing pelvic floor exercises (in other words, those Kegels) at home can help. Other treatment options include biofeedback, pelvic floor physical therapy, Botox injections to relax the pelvic floor muscles and nutritional therapy, such as limiting citrus and other acidic foods.

3) Do you have frequent abdominal pain along with constipation or diarrhea?

  • Yes
  • Sometimes
  • No

Answered yes or sometimes? Here’s what it could be: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This condition is marked by frequent abdominal pain along with constipation, diarrhea or both. IBS is thought to be caused by hypersensitivity of the gastrointestinal tract.

If you’re experiencing these painful and frustrating symptoms, talk to your PCP. They will likely recommend tweaks to your diet. Strategies may include avoiding spicy, greasy, high-fat or processed foods; getting more fiber and staying hydrated to get things moving (if you’re constipated); or limiting fiber and foods sweetened with sorbitol (to help with diarrhea).

4) Does your stool feel backed up? Do you have to urinate frequently but rarely defecate?

  • Yes
  • Sometimes
  • No

Answered yes or sometimes? Here’s what it could be: Chronic constipation. With this very common issue, stools become dry, hard and difficult to pass. Another sign it’s constipation: You feel like your bowels aren’t fully emptied after you go.

Constipation may also make you feel like you have to urinate more often, explains Joseph Pazona, M.D., a urologist based in Nashville, Tennessee. “Hard stool can push on the bladder and cause the sensation of having to urinate frequently,” he says.

If you’re constipated, your PCP may recommend diet or lifestyle changes (such as daily exercise and increasing your fiber intake). If these remedies don’t solve the problem, check in with your PCP to discuss additional options, such as an over-the-counter laxative.

5) Do you have a painful, urgent need to urinate frequently that only produces small amounts of urine?

  • Yes
  • Sometimes
  • No

Answered yes or sometimes? Here’s what it could be: Interstitial cystitis (IC). This is a condition in which the bladder is inflamed and extra sensitive to being stretched.

“IC is a hypersensitivity of the bladder nerves, so a little bit of expansion from urine causes urgency, pain and frequent urination,” Dr. Drossman says. Urine typically fills the bladder and expands it without issue. But when you have IC, a little bit of urine causes the nerves in the oversensitive bladder to trigger pain, he explains.

People with IC constantly feel the urge to dash to the bathroom to pee. Sound familiar? Setting up regular bathroom breaks to reduce the urgency and pain can help in the short term, but if the symptoms continue, you should check in with your PCP. They will run tests to rule out infections and other problems, and they can recommend treatment options such as the prescription medication Elmiron and over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen.

6) Does incontinence impact your daily activities?

  • Yes
  • Sometimes
  • No

Answered yes or sometimes? Then it's time to speak to your PCP.

Remember, no matter what kind of bathroom-related symptoms you have, your PCP is there to help. It can feel embarrassing to talk about it, but it’s important that you do. There are treatments that can help.

Have you scheduled your annual wellness visit yet?
This yearly check-in is a great time to talk about any changes you’ve been experiencing and to get scheduled for any necessary screenings. Before your appointment, download your Annual Care Checklist to help yourself prepare. UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage members can sign in to MyUHCMedicare.com, go to Health & Wellness and search “Annual Care Checklist.” Not a member? Learn more here.

Catch up with the rest of the Checkup Challenge:
Day 1: Assess your physical activity level
Day 2: Test your balance
Day 4: Check in with your feelings
Day 5: Take charge of your care
Day 6: Check your medication knowledge
Day 7: Make your health emergency plan