When you’ve gotta go…. you’ve just got to go

You, the toilet and your health

When you’ve gotta go…. you’ve just got to go

Toilet breaks. Yes, taking the time to have a toilet break… such a trivial and ridiculous little thing to mention when considering the important subject of self-care! Yet you might be surprised how many people find themselves unable to take five minutes to attend to this most basic (and essential) of physiological needs.

It is fascinating that even healthcare professionals, who have studied the excretory systems of the body, struggle to apply this knowledge in the most simple and practical of ways. Going to the toilet when you need to is one of the most basic forms of self-care. Children accomplish it with ease, to their parent’s frustration and occasional embarrassment, yet it is so easily overlooked and overridden by adults who we could say “know better”.

The need to take a toilet break is too readily assigned a low rank in the scale of importance, in favour of other more urgent and significant tasks that we need to accomplish. In some businesses it is expected that staff must fit their toilet breaks into allotted times. This is a common issue in retail, education, banking and public service provision such as libraries and other customer service based businesses. But what if your body’s timing does not match that determined by your business’ timetable? As an adult you simply have to manage yourself appropriately and this must be done at the expense of the messages coming from your body.

What about those people who could take a toilet break but simply choose not to? Healthcare professionals are notorious for not stopping and toileting when they need too. The pressure to see patients makes it too easy to keep working in spite of the signals from the bladder or bowel. Do this for long enough and you can actually ‘toilet train’ yourself to ignore all but the most extreme and clamouring urgency. And we get very good at this.

Why is going to the toilet in response to need so important?

Our body is a very subtle, refined and delicately balanced mechanism. It is in a constant state of precisely managed physiological flux for the purpose of maintaining balance and harmony. Part of that balance, and utterly crucial to it, is the elimination of waste products. We breathe out carbon dioxide. We produce urine and faeces that remove the waste products of metabolism. They are gathered up and stored in the bladder and bowel until a certain volume is reached. Then the nervous system of those organs send signals to the brain to say it is time to let go of them now. Should we respond promptly, the process continues with minimal pressure on the body. When we ignore it because of workplace rules or our own choices, we are consciously saying ‘no’ to our body. To do this occasionally is fine and absolutely necessary. We cannot always find a toilet at the moment we first need it, but when we keep on ignoring the signals, or worse still get good at it, we create a significant breakdown in communication between the body and the mind.

It does not end there.

To help ourselves ‘not go’ when we need to go, we develop clever management strategies. Talk to anyone who works on a shop floor (especially in the current age of chronic store understaffing) and most will tell you that they do not drink enough water. Apart from the fact they are not allowed to have water bottles in sight, if they do drink the urge for the bathroom becomes unbearable. Hospital staff use the same strategy. You simply cannot walk out of an operating theatre or leave a busy ward to use the toilet. The solution is to not drink enough water to stimulate the need. It is the same for schoolteachers; it is simply not possible to leave a room full of children unattended, even for the short time frame needed to relieve an urgent bladder. These are examples from a few professions of many that could be given.

The simple fact is that people make themselves chronically dehydrated to manage their toilet breaks. The physiology of their whole body is placed into compromise; not one organ system is unaffected by the choice to not drink water. The balance of the body is compromised and the risk of urinary tract infections increases.

Ignoring bowel urgency is another choice that places pressure on the physiology of the body.

Certainly we can wait for the appropriate time and place; the bowel is designed to do that. But make a habit of delaying and ignoring urgency and the bowel and pelvic floor musculature becomes uncoordinated and chronic constipation, bloating and painful, difficult defecation can be the result. You would not drive for hundreds of kilometres with the oil warning light on in your car, yet we learn to ignore our body’s request to stop and allow a bowel movement. This easily overlooked gesture is a compromise to the balance of the body and the natural and graceful way the physiology seeks harmony.

Taking enough care and time to stop and have a pee or a poo may not sound very grand, but the impacts on our health when we do not are profound.

To toilet in response to need is the most fundamental but profound of self-care practices. It is a statement of self-awareness and the willingness to make one’s own body equal to any task that needs to be accomplished. In this way there is no compromise in the person who is doing their work… and is this not the essence of self-care and personal integrity? For when we have integrity with our body and care for its needs, then we can offer the same in everything we do.

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HealthLifestyleMedicineIll healthHealthy living

  • By Dr Rachel Mascord, Dentist, writer and observer of life

  • Photography: Joseph Barker

    To sketch, paint and question life. To cook, laugh and wonder why. To hug, hum and appreciate the sky, to look into another's eyes. These are some of the reasons Joseph loves life and is inspired to contribute to this amazing site.