11 Things Your Bowel Movements Can Reveal About Your Health
How do you know if your BMs are normal? Here, experts give the 411 on number two and explain why it's important to look before you flush.
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If pooping is comfortable, things are (literally) going well
Pooping shouldn’t require too much pushing, according to the National Institute on Aging. Likewise, bowel movements shouldn’t hurt. Your BMs can tell you a lot about your health, so taking a glance in the bowl to look at color, shape, size–and even taking (a little) whiff on occasion can be important. Here are some of your weirdest pooping habits, explained by science.
A brown bowel movement is best
Stool should be any shade of brown or green. “Typically, the food you eat takes three days from consumption to becoming waste,” says Gabriel Neal, MD, a family medicine doctor and clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “If your stool is on the greener side, it may have taken a shorter time to digest, but it’s generally no cause for concern.” If stool appears black or tarry, it may be evidence of blood (more about that later). Watch out for these clear signs that you have irritable bowel syndrome.
Too few or too many bowel movements can indicate trouble
While everyone has his or her own “normal,” having bowel movements three times a week or less is the common definition of constipation. On the flip side, it’s hard to say what constitutes as too frequent bowel movements, but three times a day is still considered normal. That’s okay, as long as you’re consistent with your own routine since the real sign of trouble is when you experience a significant change in bowel movement patterns. “If your digestive clock suddenly goes from three times a week to three times a day, that could be a sign of an underlying condition and shouldn’t be ignored,” says Dr. Neal. Slight changes in the frequency of bowel movements or the consistency of your stool, however, generally don’t indicate a problem. “Maybe you ate something that didn’t agree with your stomach, or perhaps you were a little dehydrated,” says Dr. Neal. “These and many other routine factors can change the color, size, frequency, and consistency of your stool.” Here’s how often you should poop and signs you might have a digestive problem.
Super stinky stools may mean something is off
Bowel movements that leave your housemates running for cover often have to do with what you eat, but may be a sign of a medical condition. “Food that’s not digested properly reaches the colon and starts a fermentation process that turns sugar into gas,” explains Dr. Neal. “That can produce a foul-smelling stool.” A healthy digestive system will break down food in your small intestine and likely not have as much food left to reach the colon to begin the fermentation process. If your stools go beyond the normal unpleasant, but familiar odor, talk to your doctor. Foul-smelling stools may indicate a medical condition, like Celiac disease or an intestinal infection. Watch out for these silent signs that you have leaky gut syndrome.
Very loose poop may be sign of celiac disease
Although celiac affects only about 1 percent of the population, it’s estimated that 83 percent of Americans who have celiac disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, according to the advocacy group Beyond Celiac. In people with celiac disease, eating gluten destroys villi (the tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining your small intestines) and you’re unable to absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. This contributes to symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal pain, gas, and nausea. Talk to your doctor about whether you should be screened for celiac disease. Switching to a gluten-free diet can aid absorption, firm up your stools, and address other related symptoms. Here are 11 silent signs you have celiac disease.
The occasional floater is perfectly normal
When poop floats instead of sinks it may mean you have excess gas in your digestive tract. However, if floaters become more common for you or you spot an oil-slick appearance, it could mean something is preventing your body from being able to absorb fats from food, warns Dr. Neal. Maybe pancreatitis, a gastrointestinal infection or a malabsorption syndrome like celiac disease. Ask your doctor for a stool sample test to get to the bottom of the problem.
Surprise! You can be regular but still constipated
Some people assume that if they go to the bathroom every day then they’re not backed up. But constipation also includes hard, lumpy stools and the need to strain while going, reports the Mayo Clinic. The most common culprit is inadequate fiber intake. The average U.S. adult only downs about 15 grams of fiber a day, about half of what’s recommended. Read labels and keep a food journal for a week to track how much fiber you’re actually taking in. If you’re falling short, bulk up your diet with additional fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Check out these foods that can cause constipation.
Stool shape can signal trouble
The healthiest stool resembles smooth sausage links. Anything harder or softer than that can be a sign something’s wrong. (Check out the Bristol Stool Scale, a handy medical aid that classifies the form of feces into seven categories.) While deviations in form (or frequency) could be a symptom of something as simple as constipation, they could also indicate a more serious problem, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, a bowel obstruction, or maybe even colon or stomach cancer, says T. Lee Baumann, MD, a medical consultant based in Birmingham, Alabama, and the author of Clearing the Air: Art of the Bowel Movement. If constipation isn’t the issue, make an appointment with your GP, ASAP. This is especially true if what you see in the toilet looks like thin ribbons or pencil-sized strands—a possible symptom of colon cancer.
Medication can mess with your bowel movements
Got the runs? A host of meds may stimulate your system, according to Dr. Neal. Drugs that can cause diarrhea include antacids, antibiotics, NSAIDs, and the common diabetes medication metformin. If you suspect one of these is responsible for a rush to flush, talk to your doctor about adjusting your dose or medication. Just as many drugs, of course, can cause constipation.
Some drugs can affect the hue of your poo
Certain OTC medications, such as Pepto-Bismol, can turn your stool black, explains Dr. Baumann. It occurs when sulfur in your digestive tract combines with bismuth, the drug’s active ingredient, and forms bismuth sulfide, a black-colored substance. The discoloration is temporary and harmless and may linger several days after you stop popping Pepto. Check out these natural stomach soothers.
Blood in your stool is always a red flag
If you see even a small amount of blood in your feces on a recurring basis, talk to your doctor. Blood in your stool can be a sign of colon polyps or colon cancer, hemorrhoids or anal fissures, peptic ulcers, and more, according to the National Institutes of Health. Pay attention to what’s going on inside—these are the things your stomach could be trying to tell you.
- Gabriel Neal, MD, a family medicine doctor and clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine
- Mayo Clinic: “Constipation”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Frequent Bowel Movements”
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Your Digestive System & How it Works”
- US National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus: “Stools – Foul Smelling”
- Beyond Celiac: “About Celiac Disease”
- US National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus: “Stools – Floating”
- UCSF Health: “Increasing Fiber Intake”
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Adults: Diagnosis and Management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Primary Care: “Appendix 1: Bristol Stool Form Scale.”
- Lee Baumann, MD, a medical consultant based in Birmingham, Alabama, and the author of Clearing the Air: Art of the Bowel Movement.
- US National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus: “Drug-Induced Diarrhea”
- Pepto Bismol: “Why Does Pepto-Bismol Sometimes Darken The Tongue/Stool and How Long Does it Last?”