We're Pooping the Wrong Way!

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From barefoot running to caveman-style eating, what's supposedly "natural" isn't necessarily better. Shoes cushion our feet, preventing stress fractures and muscular injuries. Modern agriculture has allowed our species to proliferate.

But those who wish humanity to hearken back to its ancestral roots were bound to get something right eventually. On one matter in particular, the gathered scientific research is almost unequivocally on their side:

America is pooping the wrong way.

For many thousands of years, our ancestors defecated wherever they wanted; a bit like horses or dogs in this respect. If the pooper sought privacy, all he or she had to do was find a shielding bush (preferably one without thorns) and "pop a squat."

It's not the devil-may-care aspect of defecation that we should return to, of course. Modern sanitation and sewer systems have been an undeniable boon to the health of mankind. We should, however, return to the squatting position.Ostia-Toilets.JPG

Sitting to defecate is a comparatively recent phenomenon, appearing sometime around the 5th century B.C. Roman public toilets (pictured to the right) presented a place for citizens to sit and socialize while unloading their large intestine's smelly burden.

Thousands of years later, however, more reserved European and Western societies still favored to squat over chamber pots in private rooms. Around the 18th or 19th centuries, this mainstay began to give way to the outhouse, and squatting gradually started to fall out of favor.

When the modern flush toilet swirled around in the 1890s, defecating from the squat position became almost unthinkable. By the 1920s, sit toilets were cemented in bathrooms across the country, and pooping transformed from an impure deed into one of luxury and leisure. Given this evolution, it's no wonder that modern toilets are now colloquially called "thrones."

But while society deems sitting to be far more regal, anatomically speaking, the position presents some cramping challenges for the body, specifically for the large intestine, or colon. As Daniel Lametti explains in Slate:

The body... relies on a bend between the rectum--where feces builds up--and the anus--where feces comes out. When we're standing up, the extent of this bend, called the anorectal angle, is about 90 degrees, which puts upward pressure on the rectum and keeps feces inside.

In order to evacuate our bowels more easily, it's desirable to have this angle straighten (to 180 degrees). However, when sitting on a toilet this angle increases by a mere 10 degrees. Hardly an improvement. On the other hand, squatting increases it by 36 degrees! Lametti excellently relates what this means:

In a squatting posture, the bend straightens out, like a kink ringed out of a garden hose, and defecation becomes easier.

But just how much easier, precisely? In a 2003 study, 28 healthy volunteers were instructed to attempt three different defecation postures: "sitting on a standard-sized toilet seat (41- 42 cm high), sitting on a lower toilet seat (31-32 cm high), and squatting." Individual subjects utilized each posture on six occasions, recording the time from initial straining to completion of the bowel movement, as well as their subjective assessment of the ease of defecation (Very easy, Easy, Moderate, or Difficult.)

On average, subjects evacuated their bowels over twice as fast when squatting than when sitting on a standard toilet. Moreover, they rated their bowel movements from the squat position as far more satisfying.

Pedestal-squat-toilet.jpgWhat's faster and feels better isn't always advantageous, but this is one instance where those qualities do not deceive. Any proctologist (a physician specializing in disorders of the colon, rectum, and anus) will tell you that straining while defecating is unhealthy and can lead to hemorrhoids -- swollen and inflamed veins in the anus. The condition affects as many as half of all Americans by age 50, but amazingly, it's nearly absent in rural Africa and other underdeveloped countries.

This disparity could be explained by the higher fiber content in the diets of rural peoples, but it may also be explained by the fact that the majority of these peoples still do their "business" squatting behind bushes, while we do ours sitting atop a ceramic throne reading a magazine or playing Angry Birds.

(Images: 1. Roman Toilets by Fubar Obfusco via Wikimedia Commons 2. Squat over Toilet by Jonathan108 via Wikimedia Commons)


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