Pay attention to your poop

Woman taking with doctor

The idea of studying your bowel movements probably isn’t something you like to think about. You should, though, because the size, shape, and color of your poop can show what’s happening in the rest of your body.

There are many reasons why a bowel movement has the size, shape and surface it does. Changes can be because of changes in your diet. They might also show you the first sign of infection or other serious conditions. The more you know about how to read these signs, the healthier you will be.

It's important for bowels to work well since they absorb nutrients, but they also keep out any foods, chemicals, and germs that could hurt your body.1 Here are five important signs to look for in your stool.

1. Color

It can be different color depending on the types of foods you eat. Some shades of brown are considered normal; some colors, like black or yellow, are not.

Black or dark green stool can be from iron supplements, medicines such as Pepto-Bismol (that contains bismuth subsalicylate, that causes a harmless chemical reaction in your body to create that color), or eating black licorice or blueberries. The dark stool, though, could mean there’s bleeding in the small intestine.1

If you see bright red, it could mean you’re bleeding from the lower part of the large intestine or rectum.

Pale white or yellow stool could be the result of a problem with bile flow. Bile is a greenish fluid that helps digestion. It’s made by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. When it’s in stool, it could be a sign of cancer of the bile ducts, pancreatic cancer, or hepatitis.1

2. Shape

A change in stool shape can also be a cause for concern.

Narrow and pencil-thin stools are thought by some experts to be a symptom of colon cancer. They think the narrow shape might be a sign of something blocking the lower part of the colon.1

Soft stool can also be a sign of a problem. If it sticks to the side of the toilet bowl, or is difficult to flush, it may indicate the presence of too much oil. A good way to remember this tip is because oil floats in water. If the stool looks like fat droplets, it can mean the body isn't absorbing the fats properly. Diseases such as chronic pancreatitis stop the body from properly absorbing fat.

Generally, stool that sinks or floats doesn't mean there's a problem, it’s because of how much gas is in the stool.

3. Smell

Bowel movements generally have a strong odor, but particularly strange or foul bowel movements may be a sign of something out of the ordinary happening in your body.

Stool is made up of undigested food, bacteria, mucus, and dead cells. It may smell worse than usual because of certain bacteria or parasites.

Blood in your stool can come with a strange odor and poop with too much fat can smell worse than a normal bowel movement. Reasons for a foul smell could also include certain medications, having food stuck in the colon for too long, or an infection.1

4. Constipation

Dry, hard stool, which is difficult to eliminate, and having bowel movements fewer than three times a week are both signs of constipation.

More than 4 million Americans have frequent constipation and most people will have it at least once. It can be caused by a number of factors, including a poor diet, lack of exercise, certain medicines, lack of fluids, or bowel disorders.

If it’s ignored, constipation could lead to complications such as hemorrhoids or rectal bleeding. The best way to relieve symptoms is to follow a well-balanced, high-fiber diet, drink plenty of water, exercise regularly, and go to the bathroom when you feel the urge. Holding in a bowel movement can lead to added discomfort.

5. Diarrhea

Diarrhea happens when loose, watery stools pass through your bowels too quickly. Generally it lasts one or two days and goes away on its own. It's a normal way for the body to get rid of toxic substances, like bacteria or viral infections, but if you’re not careful, it also can lead to dehydration.

If diarrhea persists, it may be due to other factors like parasites or harmful bacteria. Parasites found in water and food can enter the body and disrupt the digestive system. However, if diarrhea lasts for at least four weeks, it may be a sign of a chronic disease, such as irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn's disease.

Diarrhea also could be a sign of something as small as chewing gum, especially if it contains sugar alcohol, such Xylitol or sorbitol. Someone who chews one or two packs of sugar-free gum a day could also get diarrhea.


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