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4 Ways to Decode Poop: What Your Bowel Movements Say About Your Health

October 12, 2023

An 3D rendition of the poop emoji.

Bowel movements don’t get the attention they deserve. Maybe it’s because talking about poop can be a little uncomfortable. Or because looking at and smelling stool isn’t very pleasant. But regular bowel movements are a sign of a well-functioning digestive system — and peeking into the toilet to check consistency is a great way to keep your health in check.

“Bowel movements provide important insight into our digestive health,” says H. Scott Dinneen, DO, a gastroenterologist with Atlantic Health System. “Frequency, color, consistency, and odor can all reveal underlying digestive issues. And while a day or two of constipation or diarrhea are no cause for concern, persistent bloating, abdominal discomfort, or stool irregularities can indicate a health issue.”

What to Look for in a Bowel Movement

1. Frequency

A healthy bowel movement should only take a few minutes and shouldn’t hurt. Although pooping in the morning is quite common, many people poop throughout the day. Normal frequency can be anywhere from three times per day to once or twice per week. What is most important is that your body stays consistent, and your bowel movements (or lack of) are not causing discomfort.

2. Shape and Consistency

Healthy stools are soft to firm and should remain intact when flushed. Persistently loose or watery stools can indicate a sign of infection, food intolerance, or a gastrointestinal disorder like celiac or Crohn's disease. Hard, nutlike stools from constipation can signify a lack of dietary fiber, inadequate hydration, or irritable bowel syndrome.

3. Color

Ideally, your stools should be brown, from tan to espresso. The color is influenced by the foods you eat and the bile your liver produces. Any of these long-term deviations should raise concerns:

  • Black or tarry stool may indicate gastrointestinal bleeding.
  • Pale, clay-colored stool may be a liver, pancreas, or gallbladder problem, sometimes related to a partial or complete blockage of bile flow.
  • Yellow, greasy, foul-smelling, floating stool can mean celiac disease or pancreatitis.
  • Red poop can signify bleeding in your colon, potentially related to colon cancer, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

4. Odor

The process of foods breaking down in the colon makes poop smell. Foul-smelling stools that float can be a sign that your body isn’t effectively absorbing nutrients. If this persists, it could be a sign of a food intolerance, celiac disease or a pancreatic insufficiency.

Making Choices That Support Healthy Digestion

It takes about three days for food to pass through your digestive tract. Quick travel time can lead to looser stools because the body hasn't had time to absorb water. Slow travel time can result in hard, lumpy stools that have lingered in the large intestine too long.

To influence regular, healthy digestion:

  • Try to eat 35 to 40 grams of fiber each day (Metamucil® or Benefiber® can supplement)
  • Eat colorful, nutrient-rich foods like beans, fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • Exercise regularly to move food through the large intestine
  • Drink plenty of water to break down foods, aim for six to eight glasses daily
  • Eat on a schedule to give your body time to process food between meals
  • Avoid unnecessary antibiotics that can affect your gut bacteria

“Most importantly, get a colonoscopy if you’re over age 45 -- especially if you have a family history of colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease or gastrointestinal issues,” says Dr. Dinneen. “A colonoscopy will often diagnose causes of unexplained diarrhea, abdominal pain, or blood in the stool — or it can give you peace of mind that your intestines are free from polyps or cancer.”

If you think there’s reason for concern, Dr. Dinneen encourages people to talk to their primary care doctor or gastroenterologist. “Changes in bowel movements can result from dietary changes, stress, or medications. But if you notice bleeding, weight loss or other symptoms, open communication with your doctor can help detect health issues early so we can provide timely intervention.”

  • Healthy Living