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Roll call: health checks

Women’s Health Week is the perfect time to put the focus back on you and your health. This year, as the pandemic unfolded across the country, capturing our attention and causing so much change, many women skipped their regular health checks.

But this week, it’s time to get doggedly determined to take back control of your health, with proven and positive steps in preventing serious health issues.

Here are the health checks for your bladder and bowel and how often you need them.

1. Bowel cancer screening

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is a malignant (cancerous) growth inside the lining of the large bowel.

People aged over 50 are at greatest risk of bowel cancer. That is why a bowel cancer screening test is recommended every two years for people between 50-74 years of age. 

The test, also known as a faecal occult blood test, or FOBT, is sent to you in the mail for free by the Australian Government. It looks for tiny amounts of blood in your bowel motions (faeces, or poo), which might be coming from a bleeding bowel polyp – which most cancers start from – or early cancer. 

The test sample is collected by you in your own home. It's painless, private, effective, easy and provided for free. So, what’s stopping you?

Bowel cancer is second only to breast cancer as the most common type of cancer diagnosed in women in Australia. And Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. 

Australia’s National Bowel Cancer Screening Program says that 90% of cases can be treated successfully when detected early. However, more than half of us are not completing bowel cancer screening tests.

So, talk to your doctor about bowel cancer screening. Find out when you will receive your test kit via the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, or call 1800 118 868.

And remember that once you receive your test kit, use it before its expiry date. 

2. Kidney health check

Your kidneys play a major role in your general health, helping to balance the fluids in your body, clean your blood and dispose of waste via your urine.

A kidney health check consists of:

  • a blood test
  • a urine test 
  • a blood pressure measurement.

For women aged 50 years+, or for those with diabetes or high blood pressure, a kidney health check is recommended every year. 

Women under 50 years who have an increased risk of chronic kidney disease are recommended to get a kidney health check every two years.

How do you know if you’re at risk? Take an online test from Kidney Health Australia and find out if you’re among the one in three Australians with an increased risk.

Be on the lookout for bowel health

As well as these routine health checks, it’s important for women of all ages to be on the lookout for blood in bowel motions (poo), a persistent change to bowel habits, and/or sudden unexplained weight loss. These are important signs that may indicate bowel cancer.

On the lookout

Blood in your bowel motions could be bright red, dark red, or the poo could even be black. You may notice it on the toilet paper or in the toilet bowl. 

There are many less serious reasons behind these signs and symptoms, but remember – bowel cancer, when left untreated, is deadly.

Don’t ignore it. Bowel Cancer Australia says to see your doctor if symptoms persist for more than two weeks.

Quiz | Behind the bathroom door: what’s normal?

Toilet roll

One and twos – everybody does them, but often we don’t like to talk about them.
Today we look behind the bathroom door and find out what’s normal, what’s not, and ways to boost the health of your bladder, gut and bowel.
  1. People should poo once per day

    When it comes to bowel behaviour, there’s a big range in what’s normal and how often you should have a bowel motion (poo). 

    Many people believe that going once a day, at around the same time, is the standard. However, research has found that just one in three adults has a consistent 24-hour poo-pattern. 

    As a general rule of thumb, anywhere from three times a day to three times a week is considered normal.

    So rather than trying to fit into a non-existent normal, it’s better to learn what’s normal for you. That way you’ll be aware if anything changes.

    If you experience a sudden change in your pattern for more than two weeks, speak to your doctor.  

  2. Mornings are the most popular time to poo

    No matter if you go once a day or twice a week, a UK study of toilet timings found that most poos (60%) were done in the morning. For men, the most popular time to poo was between 7-8am, while for women, poo-time peaked in the hour later, between 8-9am. 

    Another (yet smaller) peak poo-time occurred in the early evening, lining up with dinner time. The researchers found a post-meal poo was common, and largely due the increased activity in the gut and bowel.

    Jean Hailes physiotherapist Amy Steventon says that a natural reflex to poo can be stimulated most efficiently in the morning, with breakfast, a warm drink and physical activity or movement.

  3. It’s okay to strain when doing a poo

    If there was such a thing as a picture-perfect poo, it would be soft, sausage-shaped, brown and easy to pass. Doing a poo should feel like you’re relaxing or ‘letting go’. Needing to strain, push or tense up on the toilet is a sign you might be constipated and/or that your pelvic floor muscles are not relaxing and ‘letting go’ in the way they should.

    Constipation affects women more than men, and can have health effects beyond just a feeling of discomfort.

    Chronic straining can weaken your pelvic floor muscles (the sling of muscles that keep your lower organs in place), stretch the tissues that support your pelvic organs putting you at risk of prolapse and anal fissures (small tears in the anal tissue) and it can also cause hemorrhoids (swollen veins in your anus).

    But onto the good news! Most cases of constipation are successfully treated by eating a diet high in fibre, drinking more fluids and exercising daily. If it does not improve, see your doctor.

  4. Poo is made up mainly of water

    Surprising but true, poo is typically 75% water – the remaining material is made up of protein, sugars, undigested fats and food residues, as well as bacteria (both live and dead).

    The exact water content in poo can differ significantly from person to person – and even from poo to poo! And it mainly comes down to how much fibre you eat. 

    People with a higher fibre intake, such as vegetarians, typically have more water in their poo – around 79%, whereas those who eat less fibre and more protein have poos that are about 73% water.

    In particular, the fibre type known as insoluble fibre – found in wheat bran, rice bran, fruit and vegetable skins, nuts, seeds, legumes and wholegrains – is known to increase the water content, creating softer poos that are easier to pass.

  5. Changing hormones can affect your bowels

    While mainly known for its role in the reproductive system, the female hormone progesterone has an effect on the gut too.  Progesterone can slow down the natural muscle contractions in the gut, having a slight constipating effect. 

    Progesterone levels commonly peak in the second half of your cycle, explaining why pre-menstrual constipation is common in some women – diarrhoea/looser bowels are also common before your period, but this is thought to be due to the increase in other substances called prostaglandins. 

    Progesterone is also dramatically increased in pregnancy, and is thought to be one reason why pregnant women experience constipation at a higher rate than the general population.

  6. A healthy bladder can hold about 250-500ml of urine (wee)

    Just like your bowel, there’s a lot of variation in bladder habits. However, on average, a normal bladder can hold about 250-500ml of urine (that’s around 1½-2 cups) and needs emptying between 4-8 times a day, plus up to once overnight. 

    How often you need to go depends a lot on how much fluid you’re drinking, as well as other factors such physical activity levels and even the weather.

    Needing to wee during the night is common, particularly as we get older, but it’s worth noting that a healthy bladder wakes you up when it’s full and gives you enough time to get to the loo.

  7. It's a healthy habit to empty your bladder 'just in case' – for example, before going into the cinema or on a long car ride

    Your bladder is a reservoir. Its job is to store urine until you have a suitable time and place to empty it.

    Going 'just in case' may train the bladder to hold smaller amounts of urine. Then, when you really need to hold on, it can be harder to do so.

    For better bladder health, listen to your body’s internal messages and go when your bladder tells you to – rather than the other way around.

  8. Bladder leakage is common after menopause

    There are several times in a woman’s life when she is at more at risk of bladder leakage, such as during pregnancy and post-partum. During menopause is another time.

    The hormone oestrogen promotes the health of the urinary system in many ways. It helps with bladder control and in keeping our pelvic floor muscles elastic.  

    When levels of this hormone naturally drop at midlife, problems with bladder leakage can occur. Topical oestrogen can help to treat this; so too can maintaining your pelvic floor fitness. 

  9. Nice work!

    You got out of 8 correct

    We hope you've learnt a bit more about 'the inside story'. Find out more about ways to nurture your bladder and bowel health today.

Today’s top resource

How do you know if you have a healthy bladder and bowel? What can go wrong, and what are some top tips for bladder and bowel health? Get the low-down on these important organs by downloading our Bladder and bowel fact sheet.

Video stream starting in...

The life inside: your gut microbiome

Ever heard of the gut microbiome? It’s a vast population of tiny organisms that live inside you… an amazing and fascinating inner world that is very important for your health. 

Today, Women's Health Week ambassador Shelley Ware sits down with Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella and dietitian and author Karen Inge to talk about gut health, good bacteria versus bad bacteria and the top foods to help you nourish your gut microbiome.

Post-partum pelvic floor check

Urinary leakage is common during pregnancy and after childbirth. We talk to Jean Hailes physiotherapist Amy Steventon about what you can do to manage and prevent leakage, and when you should seek help from a health professional.

Irritable bowel syndrome

Having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be distressing, annoying and embarrassing for some women. But did you know it affects around one in seven of us, and is particularly common in women.

Young woman running

IBS affects how the gut moves and functions. Key symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain, bloating and chronic diarrhoea or constipation (or alternating between the two).

No two women have the exact same experience of IBS, and symptoms may also come and go. The exact causes of IBS are still not known; however, we do know that IBS does not cause permanent damage to the bowel, nor does it cause other serious diseases such as bowel cancer.

There are many ways you can help manage your IBS symptoms, such as:

  • dietary changes – the Low FODMAP Diet developed by Monash University may help (see link below)
  • stress management and psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy and hypnotherapy
  • medication – such as antidepressants, antibiotics, laxatives or anti-diarrhoeals.

Lucky for us, Monash University has created a ‘one-stop shop’ for people with IBS. It’s a complete support network, filled with IBS information such as which treatments are based on research and which aren’t.

Bladder health at every life stage

We all have one. Yet our bladder isn’t something we give much thought to – at least, not until something goes wrong with it.

But it's important to know that your daily habits and practices can help you to avoid bladder leakage or loss of bladder control, also known as urinary incontinence.

In this article, Jean Hailes’ continence and pelvic floor physiotherapists Janetta Webb and Amy Steventon explain how to treat your bladder well at every life stage.

Gut-nourishing recipe

If you want to get the ‘good guys’ of your gut microbiome on side, this is the recipe for you. 

Each ingredient in this salad was selected by Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella, based on the evidence that shows these high-fibre, probiotic foods nourish and restore the friendly bacteria in our gut.

Bursting with colour and flavour, and finished with an Asian-inspired dressing, this delicious Red rice & aduki bean salad is the perfect lunch, dinner or side to keep your gut team happy.

Pelvic floor podcast

Every woman – no matter how old, no matter how many children she’s had – needs to be exercising her pelvic floor every day.

The pelvic floor is the sling of muscles that acts as a hammock to your lower internal organs, so it’s the perfect topic to talk about today. It’s a crucial network of muscles that supports the function and control of your bladder and bowel, and affects your sexual health too.

Woman smiling

Rather than being yet another task to add to a never-ending to-do list, Jean Hailes physiotherapist Janetta Webb suggests incorporating your pelvic floor exercise with something that’s already part of your routine.

Brushing your teeth? Waiting at the traffic lights on your way to work? Feeding the newborn? Now’s the time to squeeze and release.

Janetta also reminds us that “the release is just as important as the squeeze”, as some women may need to learn to release their pelvic floor muscles – for example if they have pelvic pain.

Listen to her podcast explaining the ins and outs of pelvic floor exercises.

Dive a little deeper, learn a little more


There are many different types of prolapse, including uterine, bladder and bowel prolapse. Learn what prolapse is as well as causes, symptoms, diagnosis and management.

Find out more

Bowel incontinence

The Continence Foundation of Australia says that 1 in 20 Australians have a bowel control problem. Learn more via its website, and find information on pelvic floor and bladder health.

Start searching

Good food for gut health

In this podcast we speak to Accredited Practising Dietitian Kim Menzies about how to achieve good gut health.

Start listening

Bonus bladder and bowel benefits

Moving more has benefits for just about every part of the human body – and the bladder and bowel are no exceptions.

Walking puppy in the park

If yesterday’s topic of heart health didn’t convince you to get up and grab your sneakers, maybe these quick facts will.

Physical activity:

  • helps to keep you at a healthy weight, placing less stress and strain on your pelvic floor
  • gets your bowels moving, helping to prevent constipation
  • reduces the risk of bowel cancer by 16% (not including rectal cancers)
  • is potentially protective against inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Don’t let leakage stop you

Fears of leakage, or of making the problem worse, means that many women with pelvic floor issues stop being physically active – missing out on all the benefits that it can provide.

However, there are many ways to exercise that will protect your pelvic floor and even improve it.

Pelvic Floor First has developed an app filled with customised workouts of pelvic floor-safe exercises. It’s free and suitable for people of all fitness levels and pelvic floor strengths.

Health checks e-Booklet

What's one healthy step you can take this Women's Health Week? Double-check that your health checks are up to date.

Get your personal guide to the different health checks required through your life journey by reading this e-Booklet.

Open up the latest issue

The latest digital edition of the Jean Hailes Magazine awaits, brimming with feature articles, health information and delicious recipes.

Bonus recipe

Cannellini, zucchini, hemp and thyme patties... a healthy wholefood option.

Extra reading and resources

The bottom line

When it comes to bowel health, it's no time to be timid. Here's how to stay healthy with just a few simple steps.

Learn more

Urinary tract infections

One in two women will get a urinary tract infection (also called a UTI or cystitis) in their lifetime.

Find out more

Fact sheets

Discover Jean Hailes fact sheets on a wide variety of women's health topics – from heart health and menopause to breast health and health checks. Some are also available in different languages.

Explore here

Tell us what you think

We'd love to hear your thoughts on Women's Health Week 2020 - what you liked, what you didn’t, and what you want to see more of next year.