Nobody likes to talk about it or let other people hear us doing it, but let’s face it … everyone poops. Pooping gets a bad rap as a nasty, smelly, shameful process and many people try hard to pretend it doesn’t exist, but pooping is a perfectly normal bodily function. The word feces comes from the Latin word faex, meaning “dregs,” and our poop is—quite literally—made up of all the dregs and waste from our bodies. There’s a reason though that doctors—Western and Eastern—are always interested in what goes on in our bowels. The state of our stool is actually a good reflection of the state of our health.
Keepin’ It Regular
Human feces, like the rest of our body, are comprised of about 75 percent water, which the large intestine absorbs from our food as it passes along the digestive tract. Of the rest, about one-third is made up of dead bacteria from our colon, another third is the remnants of the indigestible parts of our food, and the remaining portion is made up of fats, mucus from our intestines, salts, dead cells, live bacteria, and other bodily detritus. The live bacteria give feces their distinctive smell. As they work to decompose the organic matter, they give off methane gas as well as other natural compounds rich in nitrogen and sulfur, leading to the trademark odor.
Healthy, normal stools are brown or greenish in color, well-formed but not too hard, pass easily without pain or straining, and although they’re bound to be a little smelly, they shouldn’t have an overpoweringly foul odor. Most people have bowel movements about once a day, but it’s normal to have more, or to have only one every few days. The gastrocolic reflex that controls defecation usually kicks in after waking in the morning, as well as about a half hour after meals. Depending on diet, food usually takes between twenty-four and thirty-six hours to pass completely through the digestive system.
Hard, infrequent bowel movements are a sign of constipation. When there’s not enough water to keep the stool soft and lubricated, it can get dense and impacted, turning from a peanut butter consistency into hard pellets that are uncomfortable to pass, and the entire process of digestion slows. On the other hand, diarrhea, which is soft and watery, indicates that food is moving through the intestines too quickly for the water to be absorbed. Occasional diarrhea or constipation is not harmful, but long bouts of either condition warrant a medical examination. Unpredictable bowel habits (diarrhea one day, constipation the next) could be a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome and should also be checked out.
A Rainbow in the Drain
The quality of feces is a direct reflection of things like age, medications, disease, and amount of exercise, but the biggest thing that affects our poop is our diet, which determines the frequency, color, and consistency more than any other factor. Feces get most of their color from bile, which is produced in the stomach to break down fats. Any shade of brown or brownish-green is considered normal, but poop can arrive in many weird and unexpected colors. Very bright green stools could indicate that food is moving too quickly through your system, and that the liver doesn’t have a chance to process the bile completely. Eating too many green leafy veggies, too much sugar, processed food with green coloring, or iron supplements could also be the cause. Chalky, pale stools usually indicate that there’s not enough bile present, which can be triggered by some acid-neutralizing stomach medicines like Pepto-Bismol or Kaopectate. Bright magenta stools can be caused by anything from drinking red wine and eating beets to red food coloring. An abundance of mucus usually indicates that there’s some inflammation in the colon, and yellow stools are usually caused by excess fat that didn’t get absorbed properly during digestion, which is easily fixed by eating a healthier diet.
A poor diet without enough fresh, healthy foods can also cause greasy, loose stools. Processed foods and those high in sugar, fat, or flour are all difficult to digest, and can also lead to buildup or residue inside the colon. Too much red meat can actually putrefy in the intestines, causing very smelly stools. A diet for healthy poop includes plenty of water, vegetables, fruits, and grains, with very little processed food or animal protein.
Sink or Swim?
Experts are divided on what constitutes the proper consistency for a bowel movement. One argument says that poop should float, which indicates that the body has absorbed all the minerals in the food. Some other doctors say that stools should sink because they are supposed to be bulky and fiber-filled. The fact is, most poop sinks, and it’s not necessarily an indication of poor health. As long as stools are well-formed and log-shaped, there’s no cause for alarm. If your stools are regularly pellet-like and hard, try drinking more water.
It’s okay for poop to vary between colors and textures, and most problems can be easily corrected by changing your diet. However, there are a few potential poop-tastrophes to watch out for, since they could indicate something more serious. Bloody red or sticky black stools deserve a trip to the doctor, since they can indicate bleeding in the intestinal tract. Black stools with digested blood are usually the result of bleeding in the stomach, and fresh red blood usually indicates bleeding closer to the colon. Colitis, colon cancer, Crohn’s disease, hemorrhoids, or a bleeding ulcer can cause blood in the stools. Thin or ribbon-like stools could mean there’s a polyp or obstruction in the colon that’s narrowing the passage for food. Persistent diarrhea can result in dehydration, and should be checked out, as should bloating, cramping, abdominal pain, or any other change which lasts for more than a few days.
Although a generally healthy diet full of vegetables and low in red meat is the best way to have normal stools, the most important component is fiber. Plant matter that doesn’t break down during digestion acts like a broom, dragging other matter along with it on its journey through the intestines. Corn, oatmeal, black beans, and bananas are all high in roughage, helping keep the digestive system clean and moving. Fiber becomes even more important as we age, since older intestines work more slowly. Since these foods don’t completely digest, it’s perfectly normal to see remnants of them in your stool. Number two may not be your number one interest, but it’s important to know what’s normal so that any harmful changes don’t slip through the crack.