Poop is something of a faux pas in most conversations. It’s gross, unsavoury, and yet, there’s always someone who insists on bringing up the subject when you’re trying to dinner. But it turns out we should probably be talking about it more, because research suggests that all these years we’ve been sitting when we should have been squatting.
"[The] 1.2 billion people around the world who squat have almost no incidence of diverticulosis and fewer problems with piles," German microbiologist Giulia Enders tells The Guardian’s Annalisa Barbieri. "We in the west, on the other hand, squeeze our gut tissue until it comes out of our bottoms."
Diverticulosis occurs when small pouches - about 5 to 10 millimetres - form in the colon, while piles are swelled blood vessels that occur around the anus. Both are caused by straining to push out a hard poo.
Israeli doctor Dov Sikirov tested the squat/sit debate for a 2003 study. Volunteers were asked to do one or the other while Sikirov took note. Turns out the squatters took an average of 50 seconds and reported a feeling of full bowel emptying, while the sitters took 130 seconds and rated the experience as less satisfactory.
Enders told Barbieri that squatting puts less pressure on our bottoms than standing or sitting. She says our gut isn’t supposed to open completely when we’re sitting down or standing up. The closure mechanism of our gut acts like a kinked hose so that when you’re looking to let it all out (or get it all out), the stool has to turn a corner in your rectum. "Just like a car on the highway, turning a corner means our faeces have to put on the brakes," she says.
When we’re not pooping though, this closure mechanism "acts an extra insurance policy, in addition to our old friends, the sphincters," she writes in her book, Charming Bowels. For those who are less familiar with the mechanics of all this - we have two sphincters. One is the outer one that we can consciously control, while the other one - the ani internus - controls whether it’s 'safe' to pass wind or poop.
Another important aspect of bowel health involves bacteria. Some two kilos of the stuff live in our guts, fighting pathogens, digesting our food, extracting energy and producing hormones. Gastroenterologist Ayesha Akbar, from St Mark’s Hospital and Academic Institute in London, told The Guardian:
"There is a huge number of gut bacteria which, in health, maintain a balance. However, an imbalance has been linked to many chronic disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease and obesity. There is a suggestion that they may also be linked to psychiatric disorders and mood, with the majority of evidence coming from animal studies. Further research needs to be performed in humans in this area."
And research has suggested that the state of our gut bacteria could affect our psychological health as well.
So what to do? Enders says we can open up our guts by placing a little chair beneath our feet and leaning forward. The other option is to squat atop the toilet seat and see how you go. "It might be fun!" she says.