It may not be the most glamorous topic, but your poop can tell you a lot about your digestive health. Since we’re all different, healthy poops vary from person to person: there are literally an infinite number of unique and equally healthy poops out there. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to your unique habits, so you can notice any changes and assess whether they're normal or a sign of an underlying issue to address.
Sure, poop can feel embarrassing or gross to talk about. But at the end of the day, everyone does it and these conversations are vital, especially if you’re dealing with significant discomfort. We’re here to reduce the stigma around poop and do whatever we can to make it easier to talk about it. So let’s dive in (to the toilet bowl).
While some changes to your poop are totally normal and not a cause for concern, seeing something unusual in the toilet can be the result of digestive issues or other underlying health conditions. Here’s what to look out for when it comes to changes in three main aspects of your poop—color, consistency, and frequency.
Generally speaking, healthy poop is brownish in color. This results from the mix of bile, a yellowish-green fluid that helps break down fat in the intestines, and bilirubin, a brownish-red pigment that results from the breakdown of red blood cells in the body. Along with water, poop is also made up of bacteria, fat, fiber (undigested plant matter), food waste, salts, and mucus.
The specific shade of your poop is always going to be affected by what you eat (think of a painter mixing colors on a palette). If you have lots of spinach at dinner, you may see some greener browns in the toilet the next couple days. And after that cherry lollipop glowing with food coloring? A reddish stool is nothing to worry about.
While some changes in poo-hue are normal, there are certain colors to pay special attention to, as they may be a symptom of a digestive issue or other health condition.
While greenish stool may result from eating lots of kale or green Jell-o, it can also be a sign that food is passing through your intestines too rapidly (i.e. diarrhea). When this happens, bilirubin doesn’t have time to turn into its brownish pigment, and bile, which is yellowish-green, doesn’t properly break down. Green stool may also result from taking antibiotics, which kill bacteria in your digestive system. The good news is that taking a probiotic supplement can help restore your intestinal flora when your antibiotics treatment is over.
Black stool can either result from bleeding in the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract (and sometimes lower) or certain medications. In the first case, black stool is typically sticky, foul-smelling, and often described as “tarry.” Upper GI tract bleeding may be the result of serious conditions like ulcers, gastritis, or esophageal irritation. Lower GI tract bleeding can also signal a concerning issue like inflammation, abnormalities in your blood vessels, and even cancer. That’s why it’s important to talk to a doctor as soon as possible if you frequently have black, tarry stools.
Another common but less serious cause of black poop are supplements like iron and activated charcoal, or bismuth-based medications like Pepto Bismol. Some antibiotics may also darken the stool temporarily, but it’s generally nothing to worry about.
Yes, red or maroon stool may be the result of that cherry lollipop or beet salad you ate at lunch. But it can also be the result of blood. Red stool usually indicates the presence of fresher blood from the colon or rectum, which are lower in the digestive system but could also be a sign of a brisker bleeding source in the upper GI tract. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, may lead to red or maroon stool caused by inflammation or ulcers in the colon. Hemorrhoids, swollen veins in the anus or rectum, are another common cause of bright red blood showing up on your toilet paper after wiping.
One less common cause is a polyp (a small growth) appearing in the lining of your colon. Polyps can develop into colon cancer, so be sure to check in with your doctor if you frequently see blood in your stool or on your toilet paper.
Like its green cousin, yellow stool can result from food passing through your digestive system too quickly. However, it may also indicate various other health issues, often related to disorders of the liver, gallbladder or pancreas. These conditions impact bile production, which often leads to improperly digested food and may cause stool to look greasy or slimy and yellow.
Diet and lifestyle also play a role, as always. Eating lots of orange or yellow foods (i.e. carrots, sweet potatoes, turmeric, or lemon candy) can cause yellow poop, as can high-fat foods that are harder to digest. Stress, too can impact whether your food is digested properly (ever get butterflies before a nerve-racking event?). When stress speeds up the digestive process, it can lead to diarrhea and/or green or yellow stool resulting from bile pigment that didn’t properly break down.
Pale stool (white, grey, or clay-colored) is typically caused by a lack of bile, which may indicate a more serious health condition affecting the liver or gallbladder. Bile, which is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, is typically secreted into the small intestines during digestion. But if the liver is not producing bile, or if it cannot be properly secreted due to constricted or obstructed ducts, your stool will be lighter in color.
If you notice white specks in your (otherwise brown) stool, that’s a separate question with a range of possible answers, some more serious than others.
A common source of these white specks is undigested food (especially harder-to-digest fiber sources like quinoa, nuts, and corn). Malabsorption can cause white flecks in the stool, or paler stool overall due to undigested fat in more severe cases.
GI conditions like celiac disease and IBD can lead to more serious malabsorption that results in white specks in the stool along with other symptoms such as diarrhea, weight loss, bloating, abdominal pain, and fatigue.
Now that we’ve reviewed the colors of the (poop) rainbow, let’s talk about the second major factor to keep in mind: consistency.
A healthy poop should generally have a log or sausage-like shape due to how it forms in the intestines. It should be relatively easy to pass—somewhere between firm and soft, and a couple inches in length. Too firm or too soft can indicate digestive issues, some of which may just have to do fiber and water intake. In addition, a change in the shape of your stools, such as narrower or pencil-shaped, can indicate the stool is trying to pass by an abnormal area in the colon.
In addition to the basic distinction of hard vs. soft, there are other texture-related questions when it comes to poop. Mucus in stool, for example, can be normal, as some mucus is necessary for lubricating and protecting your internal organs. Healthy mucus is generally clear and pretty hard to see, which is why it’s important to pay attention if you notice excess or darker green mucus when you wipe.
Excess and/or darker mucus in your stool may signal a GI condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), IBD like Crohn’s disease or ulcertative colitis, intestinal infections (bacterial, viral, or parasitic), or tears in your anal lining known as anal fissures. Anal fissures and hemorroids can also make it hard to get clean when wiping, as stool often gets caught on tears in the skin.
The most common way to evaluate your poop’s consistency is the Bristol Stool Chart, a seven category scale based on a 2,000-person study, which was originally created to make understanding common poop shapes and textures a little easier. Let’s review.
This type looks like hard pellets or rocks. It has spent a long time in your bowels and is difficult to pass. If your poops look like this, you’re experiencing constipation and could benefit from increasing your fiber and water intake.
Hard and lumpy, this stool type is typically a sign of constipation, as it indicates that you’ve had to squeeze hard to pass it. If this is you, you may also benefit from increased fiber and a few more glasses of water throughout the day.
More sausage-like with minor surface cracks, this stool type is considered normal by doctors and should ideally take a few minutes to pass on the toilet.
This is the poop type you want to have — sausage-like, smooth and relatively soft. Ideally, you have a poop like this every 1-3 days.
Like type 1, this stool type is small and solid, but unlike type 1, these are soft and easy to pass. If you experience urgency with this stool type, you may have mild diarrhea or need more fiber to add “bulk” to your stool. Usually, this resolves on its own.
Mushy and somewhat unformed, this type tends to be a sign of mild diarrhea, especially if you have these more than a few times a day.
This is watery diarrhea, meaning your stool passed through your bowels so quickly that it didn’t have time to form.
While occasional diarrhea is not a cause for concern, it can be a sign of IBS or IBD, such as Crohn's or ulcerative colitis. Consult a doctor if you have this type of diarrhea for 2+ days, especially if you’re experiencing abdominal pain, fever, or signs of dehydration (dry mouth, headache, dizziness). Your doctor may order a stool test, which analyzes your stool for infections and malabsorption. Following that, iit may be necessary for you to have a colonoscopy which allows a GI specialist to directly visualize your colon and diagnose things like IBD while also ruling out colon cancer.
It’s time for a drumroll, as we’ve reached the third and final major factor to pay attention to when it comes to your poop: how frequently you’re going — and how comfortable it is when you do. The medical term for this is “regularity,” though once again, no one-size fits all poop.
In other words, “regular” can mean different things to different people, as doctors generally consider it healthy to poop anywhere from three times a week to three times a day.
How do you know if you’re going too frequently or not often enough? Start by assessing whether you feel discomfort when going to the bathroom. Occasional diarrhea and constipation are normal and can typically be addressed with dietary and lifestyle changes (i.e. adjusting fiber and water intake, stress management, and physical activity). But persistent diarrhea or constipation, particularly when coupled with other GI symptoms, are probably trying to tell you something.
If diarrhea is the norm for you, or if it lasts 2+ days, it might be a symptom of IBS, or another condition like IBD, celiac disease or a food intolerance. Diarrhea can also be the result of stress, excessive caffeine, and hormonal changes. Be mindful of additional symptoms such as bloating, cramps and abdominal pain, and blood in your stool, which often co-occur with diarrhea in GI conditions.
While constipation can be an ongoing result of dehydration, stress, and diets low in fiber, it can also be a symptom of GI conditions like IBS or diverticulitis. In certain extreme cases, constipation can result from a bowel obstruction, which happens when something blocks your small or large intestine making it difficult to poop or pass gas. Other symptoms of bowel obstruction include abdominal pain, a swollen belly, lack of appetite, nausea, or vomiting.
Occasional changes in your stool color, consistency and frequency are normal and usually related to dietary intake and subtle differences in your daily routine. If you’re consistently noticing changes in your bowel habits, are experiencing abdominal pain or frequently seeing black, tarry stools or red stools you need to discuss these symptoms with your doctor.
Getting to the bottom (no pun intended) of what’s going on in your digestive tract starts with having an open, honest discussion with your health care provider so they can diagnose the problem as quickly as possible and help you feel better.
In conclusion, the secret’s out: Everyone poops and sometimes, a green poop happens to the best of us (especially the spinach lovers).
While reading and talking about poop may not be your #1 (or #2) favorite activity, it’s very important. That’s why we’re here to help start the conversation—and remind you that there’s nothing shameful about taking care of your health.
Feel like something’s up with your poop? The first step is to take a deep breath. Many of these changes are perfectly normal and simply the result of certain diet or lifestyle choices. If you think your poop may be signaling an underlying condition, treatments can range from lifestyle changes to medications. Your next best step is talking to your doctor (but don’t forget that deep breath).
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
Photo by Claire Mueller via Unsplash