Pooping. It’s something that no one over the age of five likes to talk about. But talk about it we must. Why? Because your bowel habits hold crucial secrets about how your body is functioning.
For example, the shape and color of your stools can help your doctor understand how your body reacts to certain foods and help her diagnose possible digestive issues. But most importantly, your poop can act as an early warning system for far more serious health conditions.
Analyzing your poop may not sound enticing but it’s time to drop the embarrassment and get proactive about inspecting your bowel movements. It seriously may be one of the most important things you can do for your health.
So, let’s do some detective work.
The Bristol Stool Chart was developed at the Bristol Royal Infirmary to provide doctors around the world with a uniform health assessment tool. But the unexpected bonus to this chart was that it helped patients to better describe to their doctors exactly what they were seeing, without the embarrassment.
The Bristol Stool Chart describes 7 unique stool textures and shapes, ranging from constipation to diarrhea and everything in between. Shapes 1 and 2 fall under the banner of constipation, 3 and 4 are usually the ideal shapes, and 5, 6, and 7 shift towards diarrhea.1,2
Let’s take a closer look –
1. Separate hard lumps
A little like nuts in shape, this type of stool is difficult to pass and you don’t usually get a lot out. Because this shape is related to constipation, you should use that knowledge to help shift things.
For example, the number one cause of constipation is your diet. Make sure you’re getting enough water and loads of fiber (fresh fruits and veggies and whole grains). Constipation can also be caused by medications (like antibiotics), not getting enough physical activity, recently giving birth or, in the worst case, a blockage of some kind. So see your doctor if the issue is ongoing.
2. Sausage-shaped but lumpy
Also associated with constipation, this shape is also a little too hard and can be very uncomfortable – or even painful – to pass. It may even cause hemorrhoids or internal lacerations.
If your diet isn’t to blame, you may be suffering from an irritated bowel. See your doctor if this goes on for too long, as the small intestine can become obstructed if the colon is full, and more fiber may only make the issue worse.
Chronic constipation can be an early indicator of something more serious, so checking in with your doctor early is always the best possible option.
3. Sausage-shaped but with cracks on surface
This shape is a fairly ideal stool, but with a slightly slower “transit time” than the more ideal number 4 (below). Transit time is the time that it takes to fully digest your food, from eating to elimination.
4. Sausage or snake-like shape, smooth and soft
This is the ideal shape, as it means that you’re clearing your bowels daily. Aside from water and fiber, don’t underestimate the power of healthy fats to help make stools softer.
5. Soft blobs
Still considered normal, this stool shape often just means that you’re going to the toilet more than once per day. But if it’s a sudden change, it could also mean an irritated bowel or food intolerance.
6. Fluffy pieces with ragged edges, mushy
Though it may not feel like it, this stool isn’t yet diarrhea. It still has some bulk and is considered borderline normal. But this type often has you urgently rushing to the bathroom and could also mean that you’re not absorbing vitamins and minerals properly.
This shape could be due to allergies and intolerances, or medications, which can change the bacteria in your gut. It could also indicate a hypersensitive bowel due to stress. If it persists, you should talk to your doctor, as other chronic bowel conditions could also be at play.
7. Watery, no solid pieces
This is classic diarrhea, as the content is all water. Classic diarrhea is dangerous because it can severely dehydrate you, causing far more serious problems. Try to drink plenty of electrolyte beverages.
Sometimes medications can be to blame. Similarly, if you’ve been traveling, you should see your doctor in case you’ve picked up an infection. Regular diarrhea could also relate to several chronic bowel conditions.
We’ve explored the most common poop shapes, but there’s also another factor to consider – color. Stools are usually brown in color due to a pigment caused by the breakdown of red blood cells in the body. But sometimes, they’re not.3,4
An occasional change in color usually isn’t anything to be too concerned with. But if it persists for a couple of weeks or is red or black in color, definitely see your doctor.
An abnormally dark brown or black stool can indicate blood, meaning that something in your upper digestive tract could be bleeding. Or, it could relate to a bleeding stomach ulcer. Either way, it’s absolutely essential that you see your doctor. Turns out, bleeding can be an indicator of some very serious conditions. But this color can also be caused by iron supplements, bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol!), or black licorice.
Bright red stools generally indicate a bleed in the lower digestive tract (like the colon or rectum) and can also be caused by hemorrhoids. But be aware of what you’ve been eating, because a bright red poop is very commonly caused by heavily pigmented red foods like beets, cranberries, or anything using red food coloring (sigh of relief!). But do see your doctor if you’re certain it’s not your food or your hemorrhoids.
Green stools can be related to green pigments in food (like green veggies) but may also indicate that waste is moving too fast through your colon and so has more bile in it. Antibiotics and bacterial infections can also cause green stools, so if they persist, see your doctor.
White or Clay-Colored
Very pale or clay-colored movements are the opposite of green stools because they’re actually lacking bile. This could mean that you have a liver, gallbladder, or bile duct issue. But it could also be the after-effects of taking Pepto-Bismol or anti-diarrhea medications. Do see your doctor with any concerns.
Yellow and Smelly
Too much fat in the diet can lead to greasy, yellow, smelly stools. Likewise, your body may be unable to absorb fat due to a malabsorption condition (celiacs often battle with this). But this could also indicate an infection, so see your doctor with any concerns.
The main takeaway when trying to figure out what your poop means is… If you’re experiencing a change in the shape or color of your stools that lasts for more than a week, you should visit your doctor for a chat.
Even if it’s nothing serious, a doctor can help to advise you on dietary changes or allergy and intolerance testing. It’s always better to err on the safe side when it comes to your health and well-being.
For more on optimizing digestive health, keep reading here:
How to Take Probiotics for Maximum Health Benefits
The Truth About Colon Cleanses (the pros and cons you should know)
The Side Effects of Laxative Abuse for Weight Loss