The human body is an amazing machine, but admittedly, it can do some gross things. For example, bowel movements. Nasty, right? However, it’s a part of a living creature’s normal process, and everyone does it—your dog, your cat, your fish, your baby. Yet, you might be surprised to know your poop can tell a lot about your health.
Kandarp Patel, DO, is a gastroenterologist who sees patients at Banner Estrella Medical Center in Phoenix, AZ. He has been practicing for 10 years and says your bowel movements can be an indicator to your health.
The basics about poop
For a lot of people, talking about their bowel movements can be embarrassing. However, the first thing you must remember is it’s totally normal.
First, let's focus on frequency. You may wonder how often you should have to go. Well, it really depends on the person.
Dr. Patel says frequency can really vary from person to person with some having as few as 3 bowel movements a week. Other people may need to make 4 to 5 pit stops a day. Does frequency indicate there is a problem in the digestive system? Not necessarily.
“Frequency by itself is not an indicator as long as it is within your normal pattern,” Dr. Patel said. “A concerning sign is if there is a change from this normal pattern.”
We all know what is expected, but Dr. Patel explains there are a few different things that go into what makes it that color. For example, the food you ate, any medications you may have taken or any other things you might have ingested all go into making up the color. Additionally, the color can change by intestinal enzymes, the sloughing of normal gastrointestinal mucous membranes and the composition of your gut bacteria. When there becomes an imbalance in these things, the color of the stool changes.
Dr. Patel says you should be concerned if you have any red or black or very dark-colored stools, which can indicate gastrointestinal bleeding. Additionally, clay-colored stools could be a sign of an obstruction in your pancreas or bile duct.
Believe it or not, there is a scale to identify the consistency of your stool. It’s called the Bristol Stool Chart, and it ranges from 1 to 7. One indicates severe constipation, and 7 indicates diarrhea. A normal or “good” consistency would be either a 3 or 4, which would be sausage shaped and either smooth or have small cracks in it.
Now, surely, the consistency of the stool would be a sign that there is something wrong in the old digestive tract, right? Well, again, Dr. Patel says you can’t judge by consistency alone.
“Loose, watery stools or hard stools that are new in onset could signify a host of GI problems, and it is best to get these symptoms evaluated by your doctor,” Dr. Patel said. However, if either is your normal bowel pattern, it may mean your bowels move waste through either quickly or slowly.
Again, doctors generally do not worry too much about consistently loose or hard stools. What matters is if you have sudden onset of diarrhea or are constipated. Then, it’s probably a good time to check in with your doctor.
And, if you’ve ever wondered about the smell, Dr. Patel says it all depends on what you eat and the gas that forms related to that food. Some foods tend to form these gases more, including milk and dairy products. Also, beans, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage can cause gas. Wheat, oats and corn are also known contributors.
When do you need to worry?
Again, any time your stool has red on it or is a dark color, you’ll want to get it checked out by a doctor. There are other cases where you should talk to a doctor, too.
If you have any blood on the toilet paper, it’s a good idea to get checked out. Dr. Patel says finding blood on the paper would suggest something wrong in the distal colon or rectum. Blood in the stool itself would suggest problems in the proximal colon, small bowel, stomach or esophagus.
“We are most concerned if we see rectal bleeding in association with abdominal pain, weight loss, anemia and a change in bowel habits,” Dr. Patel said. “These could be signs of an underlying colon cancer.”
To find out what the problem might be, gastroenterologists can order a series of tests including stool studies or schedule for a direct examination with an endoscopy or colonoscopy. Dr. Patel says stool tests can help doctors look for infections from bacteria or parasites, and they can help find blood, signs of inflammation and clues to suggest your body isn’t absorbing nutrients.
While there is no one test that can find everything wrong in a stool sample, your doctor will order the most appropriate tests, depending on your symptoms.
Keeping the bowels happy
So, what can you do to make sure your bowel movements are easy and healthy? It shouldn’t surprise you: Dr. Patel says it’s a combination of making sure you’re exercising, getting enough fluids and eating a high-fiber diet.
Keeping your GI tract happy is basically what doctors recommend every day as part of an overall healthy diet and lifestyle including: not smoking, managing your weight, exercising, minimizing alcohol and a diet rich in plant-based foods.
“And, get your screening examinations at the recommended intervals,” Dr. Patel said.
Talk to your doctor about the screenings you may need, when you should have them done and a diet to keep your GI tract happy. For help finding a doctor, visit: doctors.bannerhealth.com.