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The Digestive Distress of Being a Teacher

Remember the strange feeling you had that first time you saw your elementary school teacher in public? It was your first realization that your teacher was actually a human being who existed outside of the classroom. But I’ll bet you never saw your teacher do the most human thing of all: take a bathroom break. Am I right?

As it turns out, teachers have a unique set of digestive concerns that can wreak havoc on their bodies.

The professionals start their workdays early, which means waking up even earlier and bolting out of the house. You know what doesn’t always wake up quite that early? The colon – that’s what. And if the urge does strike an hour or so later once the morning coffeehas kicked in, many teachers are out of luck; they can’t just leave their classrooms to take care of bathroom business, and there may only be five minutes between classes. (Some who do find the time may still choose not to go for reasons of bathroom cleanliness or privacy.)


As a result, it’s not uncommon for teachers to become what we call “functional retainers.” After years of purposefully ignoring the urge to defecate at school, teachers may inadvertently train their bowels not to relax until they’re home. This can develop into an actual inability to poop anywhere but home, leading to significant constipation issuesduring travel or any other schedule disruptions.

Then there are the teachers with the exact opposite problem: irritable bowel syndrome. Their bowels can be so overactive in the morning that they struggle to get out of the house on time and stress about being able stand in front of a class with no bathroom breaks for hours. This symptom is called hyperdefecation, and it means having four or more bowel movements in a day. (In these cases, it can be more like four or more bowel movements in two hours!)

Over the years, I’ve had countless teacher patients tell me they have to wake up at ungodly hours – as early as 4 a.m. – just to get the bathroom process underway. This is how they ensure enough time for those back-and-forth trips to the loo until they’re empty enough to make it to work safely. These teachers often feel the need to skip breakfast for fear of stimulating their digestive tracts even further – which means they’ve got to face a classroom full of rowdy kids without any fuel in their own tanks. It also means they’re starving by dinnertime, and wind up eating a pretty substantial amount of food at night. In turn, they have to poop early in the morning once again. It can be a pretty vicious cycle.

Then, there’s a teacher’s eating schedule. Early childhood and grade school teachers can’t really be eating in the classroom, so they’ll often go long periods without the chance to eat. (Particularly long if they skipped breakfast!) When they finally do get the opportunity for a meal break, it may be quite short, requiring them to gobble down a quick lunch on that gnawingly painful, empty and acidic stomach. (Cue the bloating.)

It’s no wonder that my patient roster fills up with teachers during the month of July. Once school is out for summer, many teachers start thinking ahead about how they can break the cycle of their yearlong digestive roller coaster, and find some literal inner peace. While the particular advice I dole out is highly individualized to a given teacher’s symptoms and circumstances, here are some common themes worth sharing:

1. For away-from-home constipation …

Try supplementing magnesium at a dose of 400 milligrams to 600 milligrams any day you’re traveling or will be otherwise away from the home toilet your body so prefers. This will give your gut a little extra nudge so that you don’t skip a day of bowel movements and start getting backed up. Take the magnesium in the evening before bedtime.


2. For overactive morning bowels …

Take a soluble fiber supplement like Citrucel or Benefiber at night before bed. Soluble fiber helps consolidate trips to the bathroom by holding together your stool into a fuller, more formed bowel movement, so you can get everything out more efficiently and get on with your day. If you struggle with cramping and continue to feel the incessant urge to go throughout the morning, an anti-spasmodic may help. Enteric coated peppermint oil pills like IBGard taken at bedtime would be the over-the-counter approach. Your doctor should be able to prescribe something stronger and faster-acting if you need it to help get out the door.

Once your mornings become better controlled, it’s time to start getting into a breakfast habit. Cheerios, almond milk and a banana are usually a pretty safe bet.

3. For stomach pain or post-meal bloating that results from getting too hungry …

Since most teachers can get away with drinking from a reusable water bottle or thermos while teaching, I encourage my patients to fill theirs with a liquid meal to help keep their stomachs from being too empty – and their blood sugar levels steady. A homemade protein-spiked smoothie or an easy-to-drink pureed veggie soup can be sipped over the course of your morning classes, and your students will be none the wiser. (For efficiency, fill the blender jug with all ingredients the night before and refrigerate it; then you can just run the blender and hop out the door in the morning!)

If you’re not a teacher, but now feel tremendous sympathy for the ones in your family’s life, consider some unconventional teacher gifts at Christmastime. Most teachers would be grateful for awesome thermos, a mini-smoothie blender, a great soup cookbook or a gift certificate to the neighborhood supplement shop.

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