The color, texture, and smell of human waste can offer important insight into your health.
There are probably many other things you’d rather think about than your stools. But the bottom line is that they can tell you a lot about your health.
A bowel movement is the last stop in the digestive process. About two quarts of liquid and solid waste pass through your body each day. The solid waste is your stool. Healthy stool, for instance, contains some fluids, undigested food — mostly in the form of fiber — and dead cells that have shed from the linings of your intestines. Ideally, they should be well-formed, elliptical, and brown in color, though this can vary from person to person.
While changes in a stool’s color, consistency, frequency, and even its smell can very well indicate a possible digestive problem, it can just as easily be a false alarm. “Sometimes it’s just something that they ate,” says Edward Loftus, MD, professor of gastroenterology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “You don’t want to react too much to one single change. But if it’s been going on for longer for a week, and you don’t have a good explanation, you should tell your doctor about it.”
Here’s what to look for in the color, texture, shape, and frequency of your stools so you know what’s normal and when you should see a doctor.
How Often Should You Go?
Stool frequency is regulated by the amount of fiber and fluid you drink. Exercise and staying active also plays a role by encouraging healthy bowel movements. That means the frequency of bowel movements can vary quite a bit and still be considered normal, ranging from three bowel movements a day to three a week. The important thing to know is what’s normal for you and to pay attention to any notable changes.
Constipation occurs when you have fewer bowel movements than usual. Stools will typically be harder and dryer than normal. Left untreated, fecal impaction may develop, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). This is when you’re unable to pass dry, hard stool.
Back and stomach pain are other possible signs of fecal impaction. This often occurs when people take prescription painkillers or if they’ve been sedentary for long periods of time. Abusing high doses of laxatives can also lead to fecal impaction. An enema can be used to treat the problem if necessary.
On the flip side, diarrhea stools are more loose and watery and more frequent than normal. Diarrhea is more likely to be caused by an infection. These conditions can alternate or be persistent and include other symptoms, such as belly pain and bloating, which may indicate an underlying health issue, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
What Color Should My Poop Be?
The brown coloration of a healthy stool comes from the bile released by the liver changing colors as it travels through your intestines. Poop that’s a color other than brown could point to a health issue:
- Black Stools While taking a vitamin that contains iron or medication that contains bismuth subsalicylate can cause this, black stools can also signal a more serious problem. “Dark black stools could be caused by bleeding in the stomach, a duodenal ulcer, or a tumor,” says Dr. Loftus.
- White Stools On the other hand, a white color can be worrisome too. Loftus explains that this can occur due to a lack of bile and may indicate a blockage in the bile duct. This may be because of a problem in the liver or even a bile duct cancer.
- Red Stools Certain foods, such as beets, could turn your poop red. But it could also mean that blood is coming from the lower area of the colon, which is a sign of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Blood in your feces could also be caused by hemorrhoids or colon cancer.
- Green Stools Eating vegetables, such as leafy greens, can result in green colored stools. Taking iron supplements can also turn your poop green. One possible problem with green stools is that when bile passes through the intestines too quickly, it stays green along with your poop, according to the Gastrointestinal Society, the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research.
- Gray Stools Light-colored stools may related to a liver or gallbladder problem. Other possible causes for stools that appears pale, gray, or clay-colored include viral hepatitis, gallstones, or alcoholic hepatitis.
Why Does Poop Sometimes Float?
Normally, your stool should sink to the bottom of the toilet. This is because the contents of feces are typically denser than water. An intestinal infection or changes in your diet that introduce more gas into your digestive system, such as a high-fiber or high-fat diet, can cause stools to float. People with GI conditions that affect fat absorption, such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease, often have floating stools.
How Should Healthy Poop Smell?
It’s perfectly normal for poop to have an unpleasant odor. The smell comes from bacteria in the colon that help break down digested food. Poop may smell different due to changes in your diet. But very foul-smelling feces can be a sign of a serious medical condition, such as:
- Celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
Why Does It Hurt When I Poop?
Bowel movements should pass easily with little straining. There are a number of reasons why pooping could be uncomfortable. The most common reason is inadequate fiber intake. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the recommended daily amount of fiber for women is 25 grams (g); for men it’s 38 g. After age 50, though, fiber intake recommendations decrease to 21 g for women and 30 g for men.
Difficulty pooping could also be the result anal fissures, tears in the anus, as well as hemorrhoids. Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or other conditions that trigger inflammation along the GI tract can also lead to painful bowel movements. Pain that’s severe can be a sign that a tumor is blocking the anus or rectum.
It’s important to let your doctor know if you have blood in your stool, black stool, pale stool, fever, cramps, mucus in your stool, pain, floating stool, or weight loss. Knowing the facts about feces is no joke.