The following is an excerpt from an article “What is your poop telling you? A guide to healthy bowel habits” written by Ocean Robbins on the Food Revolution network.
In a world of expensive medical diagnostic tests, there’s a free and convenient way to gain insight into your digestive (and possibly overall) health — paying attention to the frequency, size, consistency, and color of your poop. If your poop wouldn’t currently win any “best in show” awards, certain diet and lifestyle changes could make a world of difference — and give you healthier and more pleasurable bowel movements.
Why Is Pooping Important?
Research shows an association between constipation and oxidative stress. When we eliminate waste on a regular basis, we lower oxidative stress in our bodies. Not pooping frequently enough appears to increase the risk of several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Plus, it doesn’t feel good.
Transit time is a key factor in digestive health. It turns out there’s a healthy range of transit times, and both over and undershooting can cause problems.
On the one hand, our bodies need a certain amount of time to absorb water and critical nutrients. That’s why diarrhea can cause dehydration and leave us undernourished.
But when the poop train slows down too much, other problems can ensue. The longer food takes to pass through the colon; the more harmful bacterial degradation products are produced.
When you’re constipated, there’s a greater contact time between waste and your intestinal wall, which may increase the formation and absorption of fecal mutagens — substances that cause DNA mutations and cancer — into circulation. The association between constipation and breast cancer has been observed since the 1980s.
Female Poop Concerns
Pooping is important for everyone, but male and female bodies handle poop a bit differently. Because female reproductive organs take up more space than the male equivalent, female colons must be longer to navigate around all that non-digestive real estate. Food, therefore, takes longer to go from mouth to anus in females, which may be a central reason that women suffer from gastrointestinal discomfort at higher rates than men.
As poop moves through the colon, water and other components are reabsorbed by the body. If the process takes too long, that can cause a problem as estrogen and other hormones that are supposed to be “on the way out” get reabsorbed. Lots of fiber in the colon reduces circulating estrogen levels and decreases this reabsorption concern.
What Does Healthy Poop Look Like?
The Bristol Stool Scale, iStock.com/YuliaZulinskaya
Have you ever looked at your poop? I mean, really looked at it? If not, well, there’s no time like the present!
Aside from simple curiosity, your poop can tell you a lot about your health. In fact, there’s a widely used diagnostic called the Bristol Stool Scale that’s been around for a few decades. It shows images of seven different types of poop and explains what each form signifies.
Types three and four are ideal poop types (both smooth and “like a sausage”). Types one and two show signs of constipation, which may have many possible causes, including some medical conditions and medications. Types five, six, and seven show signs of diarrhea, which is often caused by infections or viruses but may also be due to medical conditions, food allergies and intolerances, and antibiotics.
Your poop will differ in shape, size, color, and odor, even from day to day, based on what you eat or drink, whether you’re sick, or if you’re menstruating.
A not-quite-normal poop isn’t always a sign of something serious. But if abnormal bowel movements last for longer than two weeks or are accompanied by other serious symptoms, you may want to consult with a healthcare professional.
Size: What’s a Normal Poop Size?
In general, large poops indicate better health than small ones. The target poop size is typically 4–8 inches long. How much should you poop? Back in 1992, a study of 20 populations across a dozen countries found that among people whose total daily poop weighed half a pound or less, colon cancer rates increased dramatically. And in those people whose daily poop total was around four ounces, colon cancer rates quadrupled.
Smaller and more compact stools may indicate low fiber intake, whereas larger and moister stools may indicate high fiber intake.
Populations who consume more of a vegetarian, traditional diet often have bigger bowel movements than those eating a modern industrialized diet heavy on processed and animal foods. But that’s not a hard and fast rule — someone who is constipated and not evacuating their bowels efficiently may produce extra large and painful stools when they do.
Color: What Color Is Healthy Poop?
In addition to structure and size, you can also learn much about your health from the color of your poop. You can use this guide to understand healthy stool colors in adults and whether your poop falls in the normal range.
As emoji designers know, the normal color of poop is brown, which is produced from three different colored substances that combine when hemoglobin is broken down — heme (reddish), biliverdin (green-colored), and bilirubin (yellow-colored). The resulting waste product of hemoglobin metabolism is called stercobilin.
Yellow poop might be a clue to the presence of undigested fat in the stool. Likely causes include pancreatic disorders, bacterial or viral illness of the digestive system, cystic fibrosis, or celiac disease. If this happens occasionally, it’s probably not a worry. But if your poop is consistently yellow, that’s a different story.
When your poop comes out black, it may be caused by some supplements or medications typically prescribed for GI symptoms, such as iron pills or bismuth-containing medications.
Is dark poop bad? Dark brown poop or black poop may also indicate upper GI bleeding (sometimes accompanied by other symptoms such as dizziness) due to an ulcer or colon cancer.
Maroon or Red Poop
When your poop starts looking like a beet, the first suspect may, in fact, be a beet. Certain red foods, including beets, cranberries, prune juice, and processed foods with added red food dyes, can stain your stool reddish and have no particular health significance whatsoever. (There’s a hilarious Portlandia clip that makes this point well.)
Other reasons for red poop may not be so benign. If that red is from blood in your stool, it may indicate GI tract bleeding in the lower parts of the small intestines or the colon.
Green poop can arise from the consumption of lots of green vegetables or large amounts of powdered greens. Other foods that can greenify your stool include blueberries, hemp seeds, green apples, honeydew melons, and herbs such as parsley, cilantro, and basil. And, of course, green food dye, such as you might find frosting a St Patrick’s Day cupcake, can have you pooping emerald.
The most common medical condition that colors feces green is diarrhea, such as the kind caused by IBS. People who have had their gallbladders removed can also produce green poops, as can bacterial and viral infections.
Gray or Clay-Colored Poop
Gray, clay-colored stools contain little or no bile. This may signify a condition where the flow of bile to the intestine is obstructed. Sometimes such a biliary obstruction is caused by a tumor or gallstone, either in the bile duct or nearby pancreas.
How Often Should You Poop?
Sometimes there’s a big difference between normal (conforming to a norm) and healthy. And the issue of bowel movement regularity is one of those situations. “Normal” pooping frequency could be anywhere from three times a day to three times a week.
We really don’t have a clear picture of a universal human norm. And medical recommendations are generally based on what is known in industrialized populations, such as those found in North America and Europe. (That taboo against talking about poop is a pretty universal one. Western scientists who’ve tried to study the pooping habits of other cultures are often considered a bit odd by their subjects.)
Bowel Movement Frequency Varies
That doesn’t mean we can’t generalize at all. For one thing, frequency often varies based on age and sex. People tend to move their bowels less as they age. Females tend to have fewer bowel movements than men, and experience harder stools (possibly because, as we’ve already seen, their feces have to travel a greater distance).
Another yet-to-be-tested possibility for this is that girls are traditionally socialized (in the US, at least) from a young age not to be smelly or make rude noises. So as they spend more time in the outside world, say at school, they resist urges to move their bowels in public bathrooms. Over time, their colons eventually adjust, and bowel movements become less frequent and often can only occur at home. Again, just a theory — but it sounds pretty plausible to me.
Diet also plays a big role. Vegetarians and people who follow other types of plant-based diets, tend to have more frequent and larger bowel movements than omnivores — at least in part because there’s no fiber in any animal products — and lots of fiber in whole plant foods. Also, Asians, sub-Saharan Africans, and Middle Eastern peoples tend to consume more fiber and water, and have more frequent stool eliminations, than people eating a modern industrialized diet.
Normal vs Optimal Pooping
Back to the big point — normal doesn’t always equal optimal. For example, the normal amount of fiber eaten by Americans is far too low. In fact, only 3% of Americans consume what the FDA considers “adequate intake,” a number that is actually far from optimal. And 16% of Americans have chronic constipation.
The founder of western medicine, Hippocrates, thought bowel movements should ideally be 2–3 times a day, which is what we see in many populations on traditional plant-based diets. This corresponds to the number of meals most people eat, which has given rise to the “you eat, then you poop” school of gastroenterology.
To be clear, we’re not talking instantaneous here, but the experience of chewing and digesting a new meal tends to prime your body to eliminate an old one.
How to Poop (If You’re Constipated)
Since constipation is the most common pooping problem, let’s talk about what you can do about it, besides seeing your colon hydrotherapist for a sessions!
Get Enough Fiber
Fiber is one of the most important nutrients to keep you regular and reduce constipation. It can also help rid the body of toxins, including potential carcinogens. Through a process called osmosis, fiber extracts liquid that contains toxins, which the body then expels as poop.
So how much fiber should you get? As we’ve seen, most people eating the standard American diet don’t get nearly enough. Opinions vary; the US FDA recommends 28 grams per day, while the UK and Indian health authorities bump that up slightly, to 30 grams per day.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) suggests consuming a lot more; their recommendation is 40 grams a day of fiber for optimal benefit. If that seems like an unobtainable quantity, you may be suffering from the standard American diet. Here’s a PCRM chart that shows you how you can easily achieve 40 grams a day by eating more plant-based foods.
For more on the topic, read our fiber article here.
Does drinking water help you poop? Fiber needs water to do its job in your digestive system. Water helps break down food, and assists your body in both absorbing nutrients and eliminating toxins. So, yes, drinking water helps you poop.
Soluble fiber absorbs water and creates a gel-like substance that shuttles waste into the large intestines. Insoluble fiber traps and retains water pulled from your intestine, adding bulk and moisture to your waste and preventing constipation.
For optimal hydration, aim for at least eight glasses of water, tea, or another healthy beverage daily. You may need less if your diet is filled with lots of steamed veggies, fresh fruit, and other hydrating foods. And you may need more if you consume large amounts of fiber, or if you need to replace water and electrolytes lost through perspiration.
Physical activity aids healthy elimination in several ways. First, it inspires your body to move food through your digestive system. Second, regular exercise also increases blood flow to the digestive system, which makes it work more efficiently. And third, it positively affects your gut microbiome, which, in turn, supports regular bowel movements.
Conversely, being sedentary is positively associated with constipation. A 2017 study of obese Egyptian women with constipation found that physical activity and a change in diet improved their condition.
Take Care of Your Gut Health
Your gut microbes play an important role in determining the composition of your feces. A 2015 study of 53 healthy women found strong correlations between being a good pooper and having particular ratios of specific bacterial strains in their microbiomes.
Diet is key here. And the take-home action step is to eat lots of diverse and whole plant foods (and therefore fiber) while minimizing processed and animal-derived foods that lack fiber and may contribute to the formation of harmful compounds in your gut.
In addition to maintaining a healthy and varied diet, there are a number of other strategies that may improve your gut and stool health.
Practice stress management to reduce the impact of stress on your body (and your life). There’s a clear positive correlation between psychological distress and IBS. This is especially important when and if you travel, as “vacation constipation” is a real thing. In addition to the stress of travel, it may also be caused by disruptions to your normal habits and routines, including eating and sleeping differently than you do at home. Some people experience a sudden need for a bowel movement soon after returning from a trip, as their body relaxes into its familiar environment.
If you have any food allergies or intolerances, take care to avoid triggering them. These immune and digestive system “overreactions” often include gastrointestinal symptoms that can affect your bowel movements.
Train Your Bowels
Did you know that you can train your bowels to poop at regular intervals? I’m not talking about using praise and treats, or about five-minute time-outs, but rather about engaging in practices that help your body associate certain external cues and internal sensations with the need (and opportunity) to poop. For example, some people find that just sitting on a toilet seat can “remind” the body what it’s doing there.
One important strategy is to practice going to the bathroom as soon as you have the urge; try not to hold in a bowel movement any longer than you have to. Needing to finish today’s Wordle puzzle is not a good enough reason.
Try to have a bowel movement at the same time each day to help you become more regular. Many people aim to have a bowel movement in the morning, either before or after breakfast.
A lot of runners experience the “first-mile” effect, and start their morning runs with a half-mile jog away from home, followed by a half-mile jog back home that often turns into a full-out sprint or a racing-walking, cheek-clenching waddle.
Morning coffee can also wake up the bowels within minutes of your first sip.
Be patient at first — you may need to sit on the toilet for a few minutes (or more than a few, but not to the point that you start to feel stressed about it) to encourage your body to relax and go. Sometimes this waiting time goes down as your body gets into a routine.
If you’re constipated, you can also try a bathroom footstool under your feet, such as the Squatty Potty, to shift your body into a posture that’s more conducive to pooping. Our ancestors squatted on the ground before people like Thomas Crapper (this is his real name!) invented more “civilized” devices.
An Extra Bowel Boost
If none of the healthy suggestions above do the trick, you might want to try a natural laxative.
Flax and Chia Seeds
Our first choices are soaked chia and/or flaxseeds (it’s probably no surprise that we went with whole plant foods). Because they are both hydrophilic (which means they absorb a lot of water), these seeds form a gel-like substance when soaked. This can help waste move more easily through your digestive tract.
You can make a gel by combining one part whole or ground seeds and five (for chia) or three (for flax) parts water, stirring well, and allowing it to gel. Some people start by taking one tablespoon three times a day, and then adjusting up or down until they find the amount that works best for them. If eating the gel plain doesn’t appeal to you, then whipping up a batch of Nichole’s Creamy Vanilla Cinnamon Chia Pudding might just help the plant medicine go down.
Magnesium, another natural option to help you poop, is a mineral crucial for proper muscle functioning, among other things. It can help to ease constipation by drawing water into the colon. Different types of magnesium supplements that may aid with constipation include magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate, magnesium chloride, and magnesium bisglycinate.
A recommended magnesium dosage is typically 500 mg (half a gram), with a maximum daily dose not exceeding 2,000 mg (two grams). A convenient way to take magnesium is in a product like Oxy-Powder, which also contains citric acid and acacia gum.
For more on magnesium, see our article here.
The leaves and fruit of the senna plant are another natural laxative. Unlike the osmotic effects of magnesium, compounds in senna stimulate peristalsis, the (ideally) rhythmic, wave-like contraction and relaxation of your intestinal muscles that move waste along on its journey to the outside world. It may produce side effects such as diarrhea or stomach cramps, which should subside after a few days. It may also turn your urine reddish-brown.
Dosage is typically around 7.5 mg at a time, or 15 mg daily. It’s generally recommended that you don’t take senna containing laxatives for more than one week because senna can irritate your intestinal lining, and if used too often, can create a rebound effect. Many herbal laxatives, including products such as Swiss Kriss, contain senna.
And last but not least, you may want to consider a home bidet. Wildly popular in many Asian countries, these are starting to make an appearance in North America, too. The luxurious models combine a heated toilet seat with a lovely jet stream of warm water that can clean you up and also provide some healthy elimination-stimulating effects. And while bidets can be a little pricey upfront — you’ll save money by almost eliminating the need for toilet paper. You can check out the one that our family uses and has grown rather fond of here.
Best Foods for a Healthy Poop
In addition to a fiber-rich, well-hydrated diet, specific whole plant foods can also contribute to healthy bowel movements.
Apples are high in fiber and pectin — and they contain gut-protecting polyphenols. Apple juice lacks the fiber, but can still deliver beneficial phytonutrients.
2. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are high in insoluble fiber, which acts like a broom in your intestines. As I mentioned above, when soaked, the seeds become gel-like and help move food more easily through your digestive tract. And, because they’re so hydrophilic, chia seeds can help add volume to your poops.
Flaxseeds (and flax oil) are good for your gut and can help with both diarrhea and constipation. The seeds are high in fiber, and when ground, have been shown to increase the frequency of bowel movements in people who are constipated. Like chia seeds, flaxseeds can also serve as an intestinal broom of sorts, as well as a lubricating gel.
Bananas can help with both diarrhea and constipation. Green (less ripe) bananas are especially rich in prebiotics.
Artichokes feed your gut’s good bacteria with lots of inulin fiber.
Kiwi fruit is hydrating, high in fiber and vitamin C, and can soften stools and speed up gut transit.
Oats are high in soluble fiber and a good source of magnesium.
Pears are high in fiber and natural sugars and are hydrating, thanks to their high water content.
Pumpkins are also high in fiber and contain anti-inflammatory compounds. Pureed pumpkin is often prescribed to dogs and cats to regulate their bowel habits. In this case, what’s good for Fido and Fluffy is good for you, too.
12. Leafy Greens
Mushrooms are a good source of prebiotic treats for your gut microbiome and are also anti-inflammatory.
Here’s to Healthy Bowel Movements!
Pooping is a natural bodily function. Although it doesn’t normally come up in casual conversation, it’s still a topic that warrants your attention. Don’t be afraid to look in the toilet. The consistency, size, and color of your poop can help you understand the difference between healthy vs unhealthy poop and tell you a lot about your underlying health. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to improve your pooping status. Here’s to healthy bowel movements!