Like the classic children’s book assures us, everyone poops. And even though it’s a natural, necessary function, most of us either find it too funny or too indelicate to talk about.
However, understanding the difference between good, healthy poops and unhealthy ones is very important. You can spot deficiencies in your diet or even catch a more serious condition early by paying attention to the size, shape, and color of your bowel movements.
What is poop, anyway? You might be surprised to learn that feces aren’t old, used-up food. They’re actually comprised of about 75 percent water and 25 percent solid matter, the latter made up primarily by both living and dead bacteria; undigestible plant matter, like the cellulose in vegetables; and other bodily waste products such as cell linings, fats, salts, and substances released by the intestines and liver.
What makes poop brown? Can it be another color? Stercobilin, a chemical byproduct of the hemoglobin in broken-down red blood cells and bile, is responsible for poop’s distinctive brown shade. While a healthy poop can be any shade of brown, poop may also occasionally present in another color. Sometimes these color changes are benign, but other times they’re indicative of a health issue. Be sure to contact your health care provider if you notice a consistent change. Here are some other colors to look out for: Red poop can result from eating red foods, like beets, or bleeding from hemorrhoids, anal fissures, or worse, lower intestinal bleeding. Yellow, greasy, smelly poop is either a sign of too much fat in your diet, or a malabsorption issue like Celiac disease. Less commonly, it can be a sign of a parasitic infection or pancreatic cancer. Green poop can either mean that you’ve recently eaten a LOT of green vegetables, ingested a fair amount of green or purple food coloring, or it can be a sign that food passed too quickly through the intestines, as is the case during a bout of diarrhea. Pale or white poop likely indicates a bile duct blockage. Consult a doctor if you see this change, as it can be the result of underlying liver or gallbladder disease, or a tumor blocking the duct. Black poop can result from eating licorice, iron supplements, or bismuth-containing medication (like Pepto-Bismol). Or, it can indicate internal bleeding, such as in the stomach or upper intestinal tract, particularly if the stool appears tarry or sticky. It is important to notify a medical professional immediately if you notice this kind of color change—even if you think it might be something you ate. What does the “ideal” poop look like? While the “ideal” poop varies from person to person, there are a few ways you can tell if your digestive system and microbiome are healthy. In addition to being a chocolatey brown color (with a few exceptions, as noted above), poop should pass in either one or two continuous logs. Secondly, it should be fairly thick—the diameter of a circle made with your thumb and index finger. Finally, it should sink, not float. Floating is a sign of excess gas or nutrient malabsorption.
The Bristol Stool Scale (below) shows seven variants of stool, with types three and four considered the healthiest. However, occasional differences in size and shape doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a larger health issue to be concerned about. It can be as simple as making some changes to your diet to ensure consistency and regularity.
How often should I be going? Like the ideal poop, how often you go is somewhat individual. However, if you’re eating every day, at least one bowel movement a day is considered the “gold standard,” and you should be going at least three times a week. If you are having trouble going or going very infrequently, it is likely a sign of constipation. Increase your water and fiber intake, as well as reduce stress. When your system is overwhelmed by cortisol and adrenaline, it can actually slow digestion.
Whether you’re male or female is also a factor, due to anatomical differences. In addition to a wider pelvis and shared space with reproductive organs, women’s colons are both a bit longer and hang a little lower than men’s, making digestion a slower process and leaving women much more prone to IBS, gas, and constipation.
What’s essential for a good poop? A healthy gut microbiome and a diet rich in both insoluble (undigestible) and soluble (digestible) fiber is essential for smooth digestion and healthy poop. Undigestible fiber in plants feeds healthy gut bacteria and adds bulk to bowel movements, while soluble fiber dissolves in water and turns to gel, making them easier to pass. A lack of fiber in your diet can lead to constipation and other digestive issues, but it’s important to add fiber to your diet slowly if you’re not getting enough. If you add too much too soon, you’ll likely wind up with gas pains, bloating, and flatulence. Getting enough water is also essential for consistently healthy poop.
Antibiotic overuse can also upset the gut’s delicate microbiome, leading to digestive disfunction and intestinal disease, because it allows yeasts, like Candida, and harmful bacteria, like Staph and C. diff, to proliferate. A high-quality probiotic may help rebuild depleted colonies of good bacteria after a round of antibiotics, but it’s best to limit antibiotics unless they’re absolutely necessary.
If you’re having poop issues, contact me. I can help you regain the gut health necessary to get you some good lookin’ poop!