Have you examined your poop today?
I know this sounds like a silly question. But honestly, it’s important. Have you ever examined your pet’s poop? We can tell when our pet is sick, if his/her poops are sick. Well, the same is true for humans! In the movie The Last Emperor, the young emperor’s poop was examined before they decided what his next meal might be. I am not asking you to go that far. But it is important to check out the state of your stool, even if you consider yourself in good health. Because, like anything in life, if we don’t pay attention to it, things can get out of hand. And in the case of poor digestion, it can result in the development of chronic degenerative disease. Gut dysfunction shows up in many places in the body including problems with your skin, your moods, and your weight.
First, what exactly IS poop?
Stool is approximately 75% water. About one-third of the solid matter is dead bacteria, another third is indigestible food matter (such as fiber), and the rest is made up of cholesterol, fats, inorganic compounds (such as calcium and iron), and a small amount of protein. In addition, we shed dead intestinal cells, bile, and dead white blood cells in our stool.1
What can examining your poop tell you?
While there is a wide range of what’s considered “normal,” the texture, frequency, color, and smell can indicate potential problems with your digestion. Let’s take a look at some of these factors.
I frequently ask my patients to describe their stools using a number. If you’ve ever been a client of mine, you’re sure to have been handed a chart and asked to describe what “number” your poops look like. So, what is this number I’m talking about? The Bristol Stool Chart was developed by the University of Bristol and first published in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology in 1997. They categorize poop into 7 types, as shown in the table below. Types 1 through 3 indicate constipation, or slow “transit time.” Types 5 through 7 indicate diarrhea, or fast transit time. A number 4 poop is the ideal—it should be easy to pass, smooth, and shaped like a snake or banana.2
If you have pieces of undigested food in your poop, you may have problems with digestion or absorption. Or you might not be chewing your food well enough. See our previous post on how chewing is connected to digestion.
Are you going to the bathroom more than 3 times per day or fewer than 3 times per week? Going too much can signify diarrhea, and going too little can signify constipation. We will talk about both of these disorders in upcoming articles in this poop series. In the meantime, common causes of diarrhea include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, food sensitivities (especially to gluten and lactose), parasites, and stress. Common causes of constipation include eating too little fiber, gut dysbiosis (overgrowth of “bad” bacteria), and dehydration.
How often you’re going is less important than how easy it is for you to go. Pooping should never be painful or cause you to strain. Moving your bowels should take no more effort than urinating or passing gas.
The color of stool is affected by many factors, but especially by what you eat. Poop should normally be light- to dark-brown. This color comes from bile and bilirubin from dead red blood cells.3 Stools that are green can be caused by excess bile. In contrast, insufficient bile causes stools that are pale or gray, due to problems with the liver, gallbladder, or pancreas.3 Black or red stools are a sign of bleeding in the upper or lower GI tract, and should always be reported to a doctor if it lasts longer than a day. Other colors including blue, silver, and purple/violet have been seen with other serious medical conditions.
Let’s be honest…nobody’s poop smells like roses. But certain odors are associated with certain conditions. Especially foul-smelling stools can occur with IBD, pancreatitis, malabsorption, and bacterial overgrowth, among other conditions.4 A strong sulfur smell indicates the presence of hydrogen sulfide gas. A “vomity” smell can indicate that your food is not being digested as well as it should.
And, speaking of malodorous things, what about gas? Passing gas (flatulence) is normal. Not only is it normal, but it’s also a good sign that your gut bacteria are doing their job. But normal gas should be odorless, so if your farts smell bad, that’s a sure sign that something isn’t working right in your gut.
Stay tuned for the next article in our Poop Series. We’ll talk more about constipation and what you can do to help.
Better Gut Tip: Next time you poop, take a good look to determine what its texture, frequency, color, and odor are trying to tell you!
- Encyclopedia Brittanica. https://www.britannica.com/science/feces. Accessed July 31, 2017.
- Lewis SJ, Heaton KW. Stool form scale as a useful guide to intestinal transit time. Scand J Gastroenterol. 1997;32(9):920-924. PMID 9299672. doi:3109/00365529709011203.
- Hall, John. Guyton and Hall textbook of medical physiology(12th ed.). Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders/Elsevier. 2011. p. 798.
- Dugdale, David C. Stools—foul smelling. Medline Plus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003132.htm. Accessed July 31, 2017.