You read it right! This is a poop post. I almost can't believe I'm writing this, but then again, yes I can, because this blog has hardly been a hands-off kind of platform. and by that, I simply mean that this isn't the first time I'm writing on a topic that would make me more than a little squeamish were we talking face-to-face. The reason for this post? You. In the past month I've had more than a few conversations surrounding bowel movements (BMs) with clients and family members who were in some way or another concerned with the way things were (or weren't) moving along…oh gosh, this is going to get good. It's certainly not a conversation you'd hear at the office or while out to lunch with the ladies (unless of course you're talking about baby poop…in which case, I've learned that anything goes!) but most people are actually somewhat obsessed with it. And for good reason! The condition of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, in addition to the quality of it's output, is a direct reflection on your health. The GI tract metabolises all of the nutrients you eat and is then responsible for eliminating any waste that is no longer beneficial to your body. "What comes through it is reflective of how well or how ill the body is", says Dr. Amy Foxx-Orenstein, president of the American College of Gastroenterology.
So here's the scoop on poop and the 4 S's to be aware of: Shape, Size, Smell and Shade.
An ideal BM is shaped like a torpedo and should be easy to pass, however, considering that intestinal transit time averages about 40-45 hours from the time of consumption to elimination, a lot can go on in there (not to mention your poop has to travel through 30 feet of intestinal tract from beginning to end). That's no small feat!
What to look for:
- Hard + Dry consistency: If stool stays in the GI tract for longer than 45 hours, fluid is re-absorbed into the body and the stool becomes harder and dryer. Certain medications (e.g. blood pressure drugs, antidepressants, histamines, etc.) can slow down the GI tract. Constipation, which can be caused by a myriad of things, will lead to harder, drier stools (since you’re going less often, your stool will stall in the system and the fluid re-absorbed). For some people, a diet high in dairy can be a cause of constipation, so if you are experiencing problems going, it might be worth eliminating your dairy intake for a week or two to see if that helps. Being dehydrated can also lead to constipation problems. If the body is lacking in water, it will draw it from wherever it can find it. So do yourself a favor and stay hydrated so your body doesn't have to pull it from your poop. But seriously.
- Small Pellets: Transit time could be part of this issue because slow-moving stool will lose fluid, making them less fluffy and lumpier. A lack of fiber in the diet may also to be to blame. If your diet focuses on increasing protein and decreasing carbohydrates, you could be falling short of your fiber quota. And because fiber holds on to fluid, a lack of it will lead to harder, pellet-like poops that may be more difficult to pass. If this is you - no one is asking you to raise your hand…just think on it - make an effort to include more whole grains, vegetables and fruit in your diet in order to get more fiber!
- Loose consistency: Our bodies secrete about eight liters of fluid a day in order to help food get broken down and make its way through the digestive system. Under normal, healthy conditions, the majority of that fluid is absorbed along the way, resulting in those sought-after soft, fluffy stools. But if food passes through too quickly, there isn’t enough time for all of that liquid to absorb, and the stool emerges in a loose, liquid-like state. The reasons for such super-quick transit could include a sudden increase in fiber in the diet, or a bacterial/viral infection. Think about the last time you had a stomach bug - things probably moved rather quickly, if you catch my drift. That's your body producing toxins which cause water to be released in order to fight off infection. If your stools are loose it might be a sign that your body wants to get rid of something harmful, or, maybe it just means that you need to stop double fisting broccoli at every meal.
- Pencil Thin: Thin is generally seen as a good thing…but that rule does NOT apply to your bowel movements. If your stool is continuously pencil thin that might mean that there's a blockage of some kind in your colon which can actually be a precursor to colon cancer and/or polyps, so if it's something you can relate to, it's best to bring it to the attention of a physician.
- Pale or grey shade: Have you ever eaten too many beets and discovered purple poop? Or eaten a hecuva lotta spinach and turned your poop green? These things happen, because, as we mentioned before, what goes in must come out. But if your stool has an unhealthy hue, particularly if it’s pale or grayish in tone, you could have problems somewhere along your digestive tract. The liver excretes bile to help break down fats in the food you eat, and that bile also adds color to the stool. But if there’s a blockage in the liver—or in the tubes through which the bile travels—the stool might take on a too-pale appearance. Repeat after me, "when going to the loo, you don't want grey poo". Why is it so much easier to make inappropriate jokes when talking about poop?
- Bright red color: Check out your food log before freaking out…did you eat beets? cherry popsicles? or strawberry jello in the past 2 days? That could be the culprit. But if it’s obviously a streak of red blood in the stool then you can proceed to panic….juuuuust kidding. There’s still not necessarily any reason to panic as the cause could be something as benign as a hemorrhoid. That said, it’s a wise idea to discuss with your doctor if you are straining often since that can lead to painful hemorrhoids and it's always a good idea to rule out more serious causes such as colon cancer.
- Too dark color: If your stool is suddenly black and looks tar-like, the culprit could be in your daily vitamin. Iron supplementation can have that effect on the stool (as can some other medications…like Pepto-bismol). But if you haven’t recently started taking extra iron or added a new medication and you see this sort of change, you should make an appointment to see your doctor. Bleeding higher up in the GI tract, in the stomach or oesophagus for example, can result in black stools.
- Floaters: Those perfect torpedo-like poops we were talking about should sink when they hit they hit the toilet. But when the body isn’t properly absorbing fat from the food you eat, it ends up being excreted in your stool. The result is stool that’s slightly yellow in color, greasy in consistency, makes you want to plug your nose, and that floats in the toilet. Certain medical conditions, like celiac disease can cause these malabsorption problems. Absorption is essential for good health, so if you feel as though your body isn't absorbing nutrients like it should it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor.
- An Empty Bowl: How often is normal? How much is too much? Or not enough? Everyone wonders if they’re spending too much, or too little, time on the toilet. Turns out, there is no one right answer. “There is no true ideal for how frequent your bowel movements should be,” Dr. Foxx-Orenstein says. “What’s ‘normal’ is going to be different for different people.” Once a day, three times a day, every other day - all of these could very well fall within the definition of healthy bowel movements. However, if you experience a change in your normal pattern, then you need to look at potential causes. If you’re suddenly going too much, it could be because you’ve recently increased the amount of fiber in your diet. That’s a good thing, but it will take the body a little while to adjust to the change. And if you are suddenly dealing with constipation, look first at what changes you’ve made to your diet. “If you’re not eating enough fiber, not eating breakfast, or just not eating enough food, you may be constipated because your body’s not able to produce enough waste,” says Foxx-Orenstein. Whole grains, green leafy vegetables and peppermint tea have all shown to help aid constipation. Try to get 30-35 grams of fiber a day to keep things moving smoothly.
Don't you feel better now that you know the definition of normal BMs varies quite significantly? If you can relate to one or more of the aforementioned 'warning signs', err on the side of caution and go get it checked out by a doctor. But otherwise, rest assured that your poop is in premium condition. What goes in must come out. Eat well. Live well. BE well. Our bodies are intricate machines, made up of interrelating systems. Appreciate the balance of that life and take care of yourself.
Eat well. Live well. Be well.