Yep. I’m going there…even though most people don’t even acknowledge that s#!t happens. Sure it’s a gross topic, but you might want to give your #2 a glance before you flush because it is actually one of the best clues you have about your health.
Your bowel movements are the only real marker you have about your G.I health, and the first sign that your intestines aren’t up to par, is a shift in your normal GI routine.
Bowel movements are the result of your body using the nutrients it needs from the food you eat and eliminating what’s left. Bowel movements are important for health because they are the body’s natural way of removing waste.
There are a wide variety of stool colors, textures and forms that are considered “normal,” and there are definitely things that, if seen or experienced, warrant medical attention. With that said, the info that follows covers what you need to know about what’s normal and not normal about your bathroom visits.
Your stool is about 75% water, with the rest being a combination of fiber, live and dead bacteria, miscellaneous cells and mucus. The characteristics of your stool tells you a lot about how healthy your digestive tract is. The color, odor, shape, size, the sound it makes when it hits the water and whether it’s a “sinker” or a “floater” are all relevant information.
Healthy Stools are so important to our health and weight loss goals, and this is typically classified by certain attributes like:
- Medium to Light Brown color
- Smooth & Soft
- About 1 to 2 inches in diameter and up to 18 inches long
- Quiet & Gentle entrance into the water
- Sinks Slowly
- Uniform Texture
Size & Shape:
When it comes to shape and size, a general rule is that normal bowel movements are defined as what’s normal for you. However, being knowledgeable about your digestive process can help you identify health issues. Some common causes of a change in stool shape are:
- Diverticulosis causes pothole-like craters in the lining of the colon, as well as a narrowing of the diameter of the colon due to the wall thickening. The result is narrow, pellet-like stools that often fall apart in the bowl and can be difficult to expel. Other symptoms include a dull ache in the lower abdomen, a feeling of incomplete evacuation, and lots of gas and bloating.
- Endometriosis, Uterine Fibroids, Masses in the Abdomen or Tumors in other organs, like the ovaries or bladder, can cause thin stools due to external compression of the colon.
- Colon Cancer definitely needs to be excluded by a colonoscopy in anyone experiencing new onset of pencil-thin stools, which can occur as a tumor gets larger and grows inward, reducing the colonic diameter.
Look before you flush! Tell-Tale signs of unhealthy stools are:
- Hard Lumps & Pieces: Dehydration/Not Enough Fiber
- Mushy & Watery: Not Enough Nutrients/Too Much Bad Bacteria
- Pencil Thin: If you notice pencil-thin stool for a day or two, it’s probably not an issue, as it can occur from constipation and straining a lot, which prevents the muscles in the anal sphincter from opening, and can narrow the way stool comes out. Adding more fiber to your diet can help. But if the issue is ongoing, it could indicate rectal cancer. With rectal cancer, the tumor is fixed and rigid and encircles the rectum so there’s less space for your stool to squeeze through. making it appear very thin and stringy. Make an appointment with your doctor. A colonoscopy can evaluate what’s going on.
- Floaters or Splashers: Malabsorption of Fats
Color: Color can be a red flag when it’s a drastic change. Bowel movements are generally brown in color due to bile, which is produced in the liver and important for digestion. On average, the food you eat takes three days to pass through our systems. Often when it takes less time, the result could be greener stool.
- Dark Stool: If your stool is black or bright red in color, it can mean that you are bleeding internally, as a possible result of an ulcer or cancer, and warrants a call to your doctor even if you think it could be hemorrhoids, or tiny tears in the anal tissue, due to constipation and straining. Also, if you’re over 50, or if you have a family history of colorectal cancer, a colonoscopy is probably in order. Black stool that is also “sticky” or “tarry”, and smells bad is due to bleeding . However, black stools are common when taking vitamins that contains iron, medications that contain bismuth subsalicylate, or certain over-the-counter medications, such as Pepto-Bismol, that can turn your stool black. It occurs when sulfur in your digestive tract combines with bismuth.
- Light Stool: Whitish or Grey clay looking stool can also mean trouble if it’s a change from what you normally see. Although it doesn’t happen often, very light-colored stool can indicate a block in the flow of bile or liver disease.
- Yellow Stools: May indicate giardia infection, a gallbladder problem, or a condition known as Gilbert’s syndrome. So if you see this, you should call your doctor.
There is no normal when it comes to frequency of bowel movements, only averages. For many, the average is to go once or twice per day, but many people go more, and some go much less, maybe every other day, or as infrequently as once or twice a week. As long as you feel comfortable, you don’t need to give your BMs much thought.
Ok it’s no shock that bowel movements usually smell, because that’s normal. Not only is this normal, but generally a sign that your gut is full of good bacteria that’s working hard to keep you healthy. Our intestines are teaming with bacteria that enhance digestive and metabolic processes, and also the reason why poop smells. So if you are one of those people who says your “Shit doesn’t Stink”, and you’re serious, there probably IS a problem.
On the other hand, if your stool has an extraordinarily bad odor, it should not be ignored. This odor would be above and beyond the normal, and can be associated with a number of health problems, such as:
- Celiac Disease
- Crohn’s Disease
- Chronic Pancreatitis
- Cystic Fibrosis
Constipation becomes an issue when you normally have a bowel movement once or twice a day, then are not able to go for a few days or more. You can also feel gassy, bloated, uncomfortable, and when you try to go, you have to push and strain.
People assume that if they go to the bathroom every day then they’re not constipated, but if your stool is consistently hard and comes out in pieces rather than a soft, single piece that passes without much effort, you can still be constipated.
Constipation can be caused by a shift in your diet or lifestyle, with the top reasons being low fiber intake, if you’re not drinking enough water/hydrating, or if your physical activity level decreases, which can slow your metabolic rate & digestion. Also, certain medications such as narcotic pain medicines and iron supplements, can also cause constipation issues.
Common Causes of DECREASED Bowel Frequency/Constipation
Change in diet, less fiber, less fruits and vegetables
Pregnancy, childbirth, or hormonal disturbances
Problems with the muscles or nerve in the intestine, rectum or anus
Ignoring the urge to “go,” travel and scheduling factors that cause you to hold itIrritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
Calcium or iron supplements
Local pain or discomfort around the anus, such as from fissures or hemorrhoids
Drugs such as narcotic painkillers (codeine, for example), diuretics, antacids, antidepressants, and excess or overused laxatives
Less often: diverticulitis, intestinal obstruction, colorectal cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injury
Constipation may cause one set of problems, but on the other hand, diarrhea can also mean digestive disaster. Diarrhea is very loose stool, and can be caused by a number of factors that can cause other health problems like dehydration, if you’re dealing with it for more than two or three days in a row.
This can be caused by a meal that didn’t sit right, or harmful bacteria or virus. Most of the time, you recover from diarrhea or constipation in a day or two, but if not, it’s worth a trip to the doctor for further troubleshooting.
Common Causes of INCREASED Bowel Frequency/Diarrhea
Diseases and Conditions
Eating more fruits and vegetables (increased fiber)Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
Increased exerciseCrohn’s disease
Drinking more waterUlcerative colitis
Emotional stressCeliac disease
Food allergiesIrritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Medication side effects
Loose But Not Diarrhea
According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, celiac disease only affects about 1% of the population, however it’s estimated that 83% of Americans who have celiac disease don’t even know that they have it. However, clues in your stool can be one of the major (possibly the only) sign you have it.
With celiac disease, your body is unable to tolerate gluten, which is a protein in wheat, rye, and barley. Eating gluten destroys the villi, or tiny, finger-like protrusions lining your small intestines, making you unable to absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. This contributes to the loose stools that you can experience several times a day.
Switching to a gluten-free diet can help nutrient absorption, firm up your stools, and address any other related symptoms such as fatigue, pain, bloating, depression or rashes. Loose stools could also be related to lactose intolerance, artificial sweeteners or a reaction to fructose.
Increased Mucus in Stool
This can be associated with inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis, and even colon cancer, especially if accompanied by blood or abdominal pain.
If you’ve been eating lots of beans, sprouts, cabbage, or very large meals, it’s completely normal for stool to float due to gas, and not a cause for concern. But if floaters become common or you see what looks like an oil-slick, it could mean something is preventing your body from absorbing fats from your food.
For many, inflammation or an infection in your pancreas could prevent you from producing enough digestive enzymes, while a food allergy or infection could be damaging the lining of your intestines, also affecting absorption.
Other GI Tract warning signs to watch for are abdominal pain and dehydration which can be tied to GI trouble, such as a virus, appendicitis, or food poisoning.
Tips To Keeping You Going
If you are having infrequent bowel movements and are experiencing discomfort, some tricks to keeping you “going” are simple ones like eating a healthy, clean diet high in fiber, with lots of water and regular exercise.
- High-fiber powerhouse foods are whole-grain cereals, pastas, flours and breads, beans, fresh vegetables & fruits, along with seeds & nuts. Typically, 20-25 grams of dietary fiber per day for women, and 38 grams per day for men is recommended. The average U.S. adult only has about 15 grams per a day, which is way too low.
- Proper hydration is also key, so ensure you always have enough fluid in your body to move stool through the digestive track.
- Exercise is also beneficial for your bowels. It helps improve GI “motility, and can often alleviate constipation by improving your metabolic and