The Weird Historical Link Between Constipation and Nostalgia

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Ah, to be back in the good old days — a time when things were a little slower, a little gentler. Strangers smiled at one another on the streets; people rushed less, listened more. And, as you no doubt remember, pooping was as easy as pulling down your pants.

As FiveThirtyEight’s Maggie Koerth-Baker explains, there’s a sort of fuzzy nostalgia associated with constipation, a yearning for a time when people could empty their bowels in peace and with ease. Pooping, it seems, is like music, like teens, like fashion, like teens’ behavior toward their elders — it’s always worse than it used to be, an experience ruined by the realities of modern life.

Medical science doesn’t have one single ideal number for poop frequency, though the general consensus, it seems, is that anything from three times a day to three times a week is fine, depending on what’s normal for your body; constipation is loosely defined as pooping less than three times in seven days. Over the centuries, ideas about a healthy frequency fluctuated, as did constipation’s prevalence — but the notion of constipation as a problem unique to the present time, medical historian James Whorton explained to FiveThirtyEight, has persisted. Koerth-Baker offers up this delightful 17th-century English poem as just one example:

And for to make us emulate,
The good old Father doth relate
The vigour of our Ancestors,
Whose shiting far exceeded ours.

(If you were surprised to see “shit” in a poem that old, by the way, it turns out the word has a pretty long history, with roots dating back to an Old English word for “purge.” It’s also been used as an insult for an obnoxious person — as in, “he’s such a shit” — since the early 1500s.)

Beyond the fact that it’s pretty unpleasant, the preoccupation can also be attributed in part to our evolutionary hardwiring. The “behavioral immune system” is the psychological mechanism that helps us detect and stay away from things that may carry disease, like corpses or bodily fluids — we’re programmed to be disgusted by feces, and, therefore, keen to get it out and away from our bodies. And throughout history, Koerth-Baker wrote, that innate sense of disgust has consistently propped up a rotating roster of medical “explanations” for constipation:

The ideas documented in the Ebers Papyrus, which dates to the 16th century B.C., persisted all the way through the 1930s, in the guise of “autointoxication” — accidental self-poisoning that begins in the bowels. Constipation, then, could literally cause any disease, from cancer to schizophrenia. And this emphasis on constipation as the cause of all disease got stronger in the late 19th century, after scientists began to understand the germ theory of disease, Whorton said. Suddenly, there was a scientific explanation for what everybody already thought to be true. Bacteria lived in your poop. Bacteria caused disease. Clearly, the longer your poop sat in your body, the more at risk you were of getting sick.

But the most common explanation, as Whorton explained, was the vague concept of the modern lifestyle. And if a modern lifestyle is the cause of constipation, a return to older, more wholesome habits must be the cure, a logic that’s been used to peddle everything from over-the-counter laxatives in the 1800s to probiotic foods today. In his book Inner Hygiene: Constipation and the Pursuit of Health in Modern Society, Whorton listed several brands that went old-school racist in their attempts to distinguish between the simpler, more bowel-friendly lifestyles of the past and the colon-plugging problems of modernity: A 1930s ad for the Colonator enema, for example, featured a photo of an African man standing outside a hut, along with text urging consumers to try “spring cleaning the colon.” And a slogan for All-Bran cereal from around the same time contained a similar sentiment: “What a difference there is between the active life of a savage and our modern living conditions,” it lamented. “Is there any wonder that a great majority of us suffer from constipation?”

Overall happiness, too, may be a factor: A 1981 study on the link between personality and pooping habits found that “individuals who describe themselves in more favorable terms tend to produce more frequent stools.” (And people who were “more socially outgoing, more energetic and optimistic, [and] less anxious,” the study found, tended to produce bigger ones.) Enjoying the present, in other words, may indirectly be a safeguard against constipation — but still, as we move forward, we keep on looking wistfully at the past through brown-colored glasses.