By Wadyk Saly
It may not be a topic typically talked about at the dinner table or a cocktail party, but most people are actually somewhat obsessed with it. And with good reason: The state of your gastro-intestinal tract (as well as the quality and quantity of its output) is a great barometer of the health of your body. “The GI tract is a processing unit that metabolizes all of the nutrients you take in and eliminates all of the body’s waste,” explains Dr. Amy Foxx-Orenstein, president of the American College of Gastroenterology. “What comes through it is reflective of how well or how ill the body is.”
Hard and dry
The amount of time it takes for the food you eat to make its way through the gastro-intestinal system and exit into the toilet will have an impact on the consistency of your stool. “Intestinal transit averages 40 to 45 hours from when you eat to when it comes out,” says Foxx-Orenstein. If it stays in the GI tract for longer than that, fluid is re-absorbed into the body and the stool becomes harder and dryer. Certain medications—like blood pressure drugs, antidepressants and histamines—can slow down the GI tract. Constipation, which has a myriad of causes, 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 (and have dry, hard-to-pass stool when you do finally go), it is worth reducing your dairy intake for a week or two to see if that helps. And being dehydrated can also lead to this problem because if the body is lacking in water, it will draw it—and conserve it—from wherever it can find it.
“An ideal stool looks like a torpedo—it should be large, soft, fluffy and easy to pass,” says Foxx-Orenstein. But when conditions are less than ideal, the stool may become more like little deer pellets. Again, transit time may be part of the 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. Beware if you’re following a weight-loss plan (such as Atkins) that focuses on increasing protein and decreasing carbohydrates, since that can leave you with a diet that’s low in fiber. And since fiber holds on to fluid, a lack of it will lead to harder, pellet-like poops that may be more difficult to pass.
Your body secretes about eight liters of fluid during the course of a day—from the stomach, salivary glands and pancreas—to help your 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 too-soft state. The reasons for such super-quick transit could include a sudden increase in fiber in the diet, or a bacterial or viral infection. “When there is an infection, the body produces toxins which cause water to be released,” says Dr. Michael Farber, director of the Executive Health Program at Hackensack University Medical Center. “Things move through very quickly through your system because the body wants to get rid of them.”
Thin may be the preferable state for many things—figures, cell phones, television screens—but when it comes to bowel movements, thin is definitely not a good thing. Specifically, thin stools could be an indicator of colon cancer, or its precursor, polyps in the colon. “Whenever you have mass in the colon that creates blockage, anything that needs to be pushed past that mass will become thinner,” Farber says. “If you are seeing thin stools on a consistent basis, that it something you should have looked at by your doctor.”
Looking pale or gray
Normal stool can come in a range of colors (influenced by what you eat and what medications you take, among other factors). 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. Also, if you are suffering from a pancreatic disorder, the stool might look gray because it will be lacking the color imbued by the digestive enzymes produced in that organ.
Your first instinct upon seeing red-colored stool in the toilet would probably be to panic. But before you speed-dial your doctor, think about what you ate several hours ago—if it was beets or bright red popsicles, that might be the culprit for creating those colored stools. But if it’s obviously a streak of red blood in the stool, in the toilet, or on the toilet paper, then it’s a given that you’re bleeding somewhere inside. There’s still not necessarily any reason to panic—the cause could be something as benign as a hemorrhoid or just a small fissure caused by straining to go. That said, it’s a wise idea to discuss with your doctor if you are straining often since that can lead to painful hemorrhoids. Also, if you’ve never seen blood before it’s definitely worth having your doctor rule out more serious causes—like colon cancer.
If your stool is suddenly black and looks sort of tar-like, the culprit could be lurking in your daily vitamin pill. Iron supplementation (on its own or when it’s included in a multi-vitamin) can have that effect on the stool. But if you haven’t recently started taking extra iron and you see this sort of change, you should make an appointment to see your doctor. “If there is bleeding higher up in the GI tract—like the stomach or esophagus—the result can be stool that looks black and tar-like,” says Foxx-Orenstein. “It’s very useful information for the doctor to know if what you’re seeing is black or bright red because that gives a clue to the location of the bleeding.” In either case, she strongly urges anyone who is seeing blood in their stool to get checked out by their doctor.
It floats (and stinks!)
Those ideal torpedo-like poops 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: stool that’s yellowish in color, greasy in consistency, foul smelling, and that floats in the toilet. Certain medical conditions, like celiac disease, can cause these malabsorption problems. And since essential nutrients could also be lost along with the un-absorbed fat, it’s important to see your doctor if you experience this problem. These fatty, smelly stools are also one of the more unpleasant side effects of eating foods that contain Olestra (the faux fat found in some chips and other fried snacks) or of taking the weight loss drug Xenical or its over-the-counter cousin, Alli.
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,” 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 normal and healthy bowel movements. But if you experience a change in your normal pattern, then you need to look at what might be causing it. 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 [which helps get things moving in the morning], or just not eating enough food, you may be constipated because your body’s not able to produce enough waste,” says Foxx-Orenstein.