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What Your Poop Is Telling You

January 25, 2024

Nobody likes talking about poop. But you can learn a lot about your health by keeping an eye on it.

Your stool can be affected by what you eat. But more importantly, the color, consistency and frequency of your bowel movements can provide insights into your digestive health. Sudden changes may be nothing more than the result of stress or a bad meal. But when those changes persist for a week or longer, it could signal a more serious health problem.

Key Characteristics

Stool varies from person to person. And there’s no one element of stool that’s more important than others. You have to look at everything together to get an accurate assessment of what’s happening.

The Bristol stool scale categorizes stool into seven types, with type 4 being ideal. The first two are considered constipation, while the final two are considered diarrhea. The types:

  • Type 1: Stool is pebble-like, made up of hard lumps like nuts
  • Type 2: Lumpy and sausage-like, hard to pass
  • Type 3: Firm, but with cracks on the surface
  • Type 4: Like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft
  • Type 5: Soft blobs with clear edges
  • Type 6: Mushy, ragged edges, fluffy
  • Type 7: Watery, no solid pieces, entirely liquid

Stool color (typically a shade of brown) can vary, based on what you eat and the medications you take. But sometimes, a shift in color can indicate something is wrong. Colors include:

Pale/white: This could suggest a blockage in your bile duct.

Black: This is common after taking Pepto Bismol. But it could also suggest bleeding in your gastrointestinal tract.

Green: Green stool can be a sign of food poisoning and is common in people with conditions like colitis or irritable bowel syndrome.

Red: While your first thought may be blood, it could be related to beets, tomatoes and foods with red food coloring. But it could suggest hemorrhoids, diverticulitis or sometimes colon cancer.

Yellow: This could suggest that your body is having trouble digesting fats and may be a sign of chronic pancreatitis.

Improving Your Stool

One of the problems with the Western diet is a heavy reliance on low-fiber meats, rather than high-fiber fruits and vegetables. The impact of that can be seen in the frequency of bowel movements. In the U.S., a large percentage of people don’t poop every day. But in countries where people have high-fiber diets, it’s more common to go once or twice a day.

Adding more fiber to your diet is just a matter of focusing on the right foods and staying away from the wrong foods. By adding more soluble and insoluble fiber to your daily menu, you can keep your bowel movements soft and moving smoothly through your digestive track. This can also help lower your risk of colon cancer.

Examples of soluble fiber include avocados, oats, figs, beans, peas, lentils and the insides of apples or pears. Insoluble fiber includes nuts, carrots, sweet potatoes, seeds, lettuce, celery and the skins of apples or pears.

It also helps to avoid red meats, caffeinated beverages and alcohol, while drinking more water.

Talking About Your Poop

Your stool, like other medical topics below your belt, is one of those subjects that can be difficult to discuss with your doctor. These conversations are often more embarrassing for men, who tend to be apprehensive about personal matters. Women – particularly those who have given birth – often have a more open relationship with their doctors.

Remember that your doctor is trained for these uncomfortable conversations. There’s nothing you can say that’s going to surprise them. In the unlikely event that you feel like your family doctor isn’t the right fit, seek out a colorectal surgeon or gastroenterologist. They specialize in the digestive tract.

It’s a conversation you should have if you experience any considerable change in your bowel habits. If you’ve been relatively regular and suddenly experience extended bouts of diarrhea or become constipated for more than a couple days, don’t ignore it and hope it goes away.

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