It may come as a surprise, but your bowel movements are more than just a way for your body to expel waste. In fact, the color, shape, and texture of your stool can be a valuable indicator of your overall health. Since everyone is different, paying attention to your bowel movements will help you become more aware of what’s normal for you. This way, you will immediately notice any sudden changes that may be clues of underlying issues, such as diet sensitivities or lifestyle changes causing your gut to react adversely.
Though “normal” stool may vary in appearance from person to person, there are a few general characteristics that indicate a healthy stool (and a healthy gut!).
- Color: Though the exact shade may vary, a brown color is an indicator of a healthy stool.
- Consistency: Not too soft, and not too hard. The stool should be somewhere between soft and firm, easy to pass, and keeping its shape.
- Size: Anything above 4 or 5 cm (about 2 inches) long pieces can be considered normal. Most of all, the stool should be comfortable and easy to pass.
- Shape: The shape should be log or sausage-like, though there can be variations. Generally, the closer the stool is to this shape, the healthier it is, while the more it deviates from the log shape, the more it may be an indicator of underlying health issues.
- Time: If it takes more than 15 minutes or so to pass a stool, it may mean that you have an underlying health issue. The main rule to remember is that stool should be easy and comfortable to pass, and you should not have to strain or wait for long periods of time.
Now that we’ve gone over the characteristics of a healthy stool, we can move onto the warning signs and what they can tell you about your health.
Color: Stool may have colors other than brown for a variety of reasons, ranging from the more benign—such as diet changes—to the more serious, such as underlying medical conditions. A good rule of thumb is to consult a medical professional whenever your stool is frequently an unexpected color (i.e. not brown), and especially if the odd color is accompanied by any pain or other unpleasant symptoms. Read on to find out what different stool colors may mean:
- Brown: As mentioned, a brown color indicates a healthy stool.
- Slightly green: Nothing to worry about as long as other characteristics match those of a healthy stool.
- Very green: This could be because you recently ate lots of leafy greens, but it can also mean that food is passing through your digestive system too quickly.
- Yellow: A yellow color may be due to diet, or it may indicate malabsorption of nutrients, stress, celiac disease, or other medical disorders.
- Black: Could be due to diet, but may also be due to bleeding ulcers.
- Red: Could be due to diet, but could also indicate intestinal bleeding or anal fissures. Red stool may be a symptom of a serious condition, and you should seek medical attention immediately if you have not recently eaten red foods, such as beets, tomatoes, cherries, or food containing red food coloring.
- White: White or clay-like stool could be a sign that your bile duct is blocked, since stool gets its characteristic brown color partly from bile 4. This is a serious condition that may also warrant seeking immediate medical attention.
- Exceedingly soft: Overly soft stool is generally a sign of diarrhea. This may be due to dietary changes, or due to IBS or another underlying health condition.
- Exceedingly hard: Overly hard stool is a sign that you may be experiencing constipation.
Size: Small, hard, marble-like stools may also be a sign of constipation, and may indicate a lack of fibre in the diet.
Shape: As mentioned, a smooth log-like shape is the ideal, and a few cracks or lumps is also normal. Lots of lumpiness may indicate mild constipation, while formless stool that does not hold its shape may be a sign of mild diarrhea.
Time & Frequency:
- If it regularly takes you longer than 15 minutes to pass a stool, it may be a sign of an underlying issue, such as stress, constipation, or something else. You should definitely pay attention to this warning sign, especially if accompanied by pain or straining to pass stools.
- When it comes to frequency, anywhere from 3 times a day to every other day is considered healthy, while passing stools 2, 3, or more days apart is a symptom of constipation.
While it may not be the most pleasant of topics, learning how to “read” your stool is a valuable way to gain insight into your overall health, and is an important tool to help alert you when something isn’t right. However, observing one or two deviations from the normal characteristics is not enough to provide a definitive diagnosis to an underlying medical condition. So, while occasionally experiencing an irregular stool is usually nothing to worry about, it’s important to seek medical guidance whenever you have stool abnormalities that occur frequently, last for longer than a day or two, or are accompanied by pain or discomfort.
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