Stool is more than just the waste product of digestion. It can tell you a lot about your digestive health.
The words “feces” or “stool” do not usually enter into polite conversation. If we talk about bowel movements at all, it is usually an older person complaining about not having one or a younger person making a poop joke.
But whatever we call it, feces is an important part of our digestive process, and it can tell us a lot about our digestive health.
What Is Feces?
A bowel movement is the last stop in the digestive process. After your body has extracted all the nutrients and liquids that it needs, the waste that is left contains some fluids, undigested food — mostly in the form of fiber — and old cells that have shed from the linings of your intestines.
About two quarts of liquid and solid waste pass through your body each day. That solid waste is your stool. Changes in its color, consistency, frequency, and even its smell can be important clues to digestive problems.
How Often Do You Go?
The normal number of bowel movements varies quite a bit from person to person. Anywhere from three bowel movements a day to three a week can be considered normal. The important thing to pay attention to is a change in what is normal for you.
A few things to know about a bowel movement:
- Stool frequency is usually regulated by how much fiber you eat, how much fluid you drink, and how much exercise you get.
- Constipation occurs when you have fewer bowel movements than usual. Your stool is usually harder and dryer than normal. If you go more than four days without a stool, you may be constipated.
- Diarrhea stools are more loose and watery and more frequent than normal. Diarrhea is more likely to be caused by an infection.
What Does It Look Like?
Take a look at your poop. A normal stool has a brown color that comes from bile salts released by your liver. If your food has been digested properly, your stool should sink to the bottom of the toilet.
Here are some problems to watch for:
- Dark-colored stool can be a sign of bleeding somewhere in your digestive system. If blood is coming from the lower area of the colon or the anus, the stool may be stained bright red. Blood from higher up in the digestive system may appear black or tar-like.
- Clay-colored stool may be a warning of liver or gallbladder problem. Possible causes for stool that appears pale or clay-colored include viral hepatitis, gallstones, or alcoholic hepatitis.
- Stool that floats can be a sign of an intestinal infection or a change in your diet that introduces more gas into your digestive system. People who have malabsorption, a condition in which you can’t absorb enough fat and other nutrients, often have floating stools.
How Does It Smell?
It’s normal for poop to smell. The smell comes from the bacteria in your colon that help break down your food. The important thing to pay attention to is a change in the way your poop usually smells. In most cases this is just due to a change in your diet, but very foul-smelling feces can be a sign of a medical condition. Here are some causes of particularly foul-smelling stool:
- Celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
Feces, stool, poop, or waste — whatever you choose to call it, you should not ignore it. 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.