What Your Poop Is Telling You: 5 Questions to Consider

By Melissa Blake, ND

How often do you turn around and face the toilet bowl before you flush? To really look and see what your body just eliminated?

Probably not a conversation to have at the dinner table, but it is important to get comfortable with looking at and talking about poop. After all, poop should happen every day, and when it comes to good health, the things you do every day, your habits and routines, have the biggest impact.

It may not be sexy or elegant, but there are several advantages to getting to know your poo.

  1. Your poop can be part of a prevention plan, providing early signs that something might be off.
  2. Getting to know your daily rhythms is information you can use to tweak your nutrition and lifestyle.
  3. A record of your poop habits, including any changes, can provide insight for your healthcare provider, leading to more efficient solutions.*

Keep in mind, changes in your poop can happen for a number of reasons and do not always require a trip to your doctor’s office. They are, however, important indicators that your gut health is working well or maybe needs some attention.

Five questions to ask about poop:

  1. How often am I having a bowel movement?

There is a big range in the number of poops that is considered normal. Frequency can range person to person from three times per week to three times per day.1 In my experience, most people feel best when they are having at least one bowel movement a day. Frequency may vary depending on stress, diet, medications, supplements, and hydration, among other things so what’s important is to track your normal. Consider discussing any changes in your routine that last more than a few days with your healthcare provider.

2. What color is my poop?

Normal color variations can absolutely occur depending on your diet and medications. Beets, for example, can cause poop to be red, while iron supplements can contribute very dark stool. The ideal color is some shade of brown. A sudden change in color that you cannot trace back to diet is worth mentioning to your healthcare provider.

3. What is the shape and consistency of my poop?

A helpful resource to use to monitor shape and consistency is the Bristol Stool Chart.2 This chart provides an image and description of seven different poop types.

Bristol Stool Chart

Type 1Separate hard lumps,
like nuts (hard to pass)
Type 2Sausage-shaped,
but lumpy
Type 3Like a sausage, but with
cracks on the surface
Type 4Like a sausage or snake,
smooth & soft
Type 5Soft blobs with clear-
cut edges
Type 6Fluffy pieces with ragged
edges, a mushy stool
Type 7Watery, no solid pieces
(entirely liquid)
Adapted from: Heaton KW et al. Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology. 1997;32(9):920-924.

Types 3 and 4 lie in the middle and are examples of the ideal poop. They are well-formed (not too hard, not too loose) and easy to pass (no straining required, minimal urgency). The other types fall on either end of the spectrum and may reflect the need to address dietary factors.

Monitoring and adjusting fiber, water intake, and exercise may help move types 1 and 2 toward a more normal stool type. In my naturopathic medical practice, I will often suggest breathing exercises, eating when calm and relaxed, and reducing caffeine as initial strategies to help shift types 5 and 6 into more ideal, better formed movements.3

Discuss any sudden change in the shape or consistency of your poop that does not improve with dietary modifications with your healthcare provider.

4. Does it sink or float?

In my clinical experience, patients with strong digestive systems are more likely to have poop that sinks, indicating food has been well digested and absorbed. Occasionally, a high-fiber or high-fat meal may contribute to stools that float, but if this happens on the regular, especially if the stool also looks pale or is greasy or sticky, it is worth talking to your healthcare provider.

5. Does it smell?

This may seem like a ridiculous question. Poop stinks, right? Actually, not always, or at least it should not trigger the need for friends and family to evacuate the premises. I often hear about really stinky poop in patients who also have signs of weak digestion or when the bacteria in their digestive system need some rebalancing. A strong odor in combination with changes in frequency, consistency, or color warrant a discussion with your healthcare provider.

Conclusion

Although what is normal varies from person to person, these general guidelines may help you identify potential concerns. The ideal way to approach poop is to understand what is normal for you, get to know how your body responds to various influences (environment, stress, hydration, food, medications), and be able to communicate changes with your healthcare provider.

One of the most empowering things you can do for your own health is to pay attention. Considering how important pooping is and how much information your poop can provide, maybe it is not too much to ask to take a look before you flush.

*Please note: If you decide to take this idea seriously and start taking pictures, please not do show every poop pic to your doctor, only the really unusual ones. Also, keep these images under lock and key. I wouldn’t want this suggestion to ruin any first dates, or marriages for that matter.

References:

1. Mitsuhashi S et al. Characterizing Normal Bowel Frequency and Consistency in a Representative Sample of Adults in the United States (NHANES). Am J Gastroenterol. 2018;113(1):115-123.
2. Amarenco G. Bristol Stool Chart: Prospective and monocentric study of “stools introspection” in healthy subjects. Prog Urol. 2014 Sep;24(11):708-713.
3. de Oliveira EP. Runner’s diarrhea: what is it, what causes it, and how can it be prevented? Curr Opin Gastroenterol. 2017;33(1):41-46.

Melissa Blake, ND
Melissa Blake, ND is the Manager of Curriculum Development at Metagenics. Dr. Blake completed her pre-medical studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and obtained her naturopathic medical training from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. Dr. Blake has over 10 years of clinical experience, specializing in the integrative and functional management of chronic health issues.

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