In 2014, Cameron Diaz was one of the first people to openly talk about poop. She shocked the world when she talked about “waking up her digestive tract” every morning by drinking a liter of water, and how looking at your poop can tell you a lot about your state of health.
In many ways, the Industrial Age has pulled us away from nature and we have lost touch with our bodies. It is no surprise that today many people think of their poop as a useless and gross waste product. But, much like our body temperature and heart rate, our poop can tell us a lot about our wellbeing. We just have to learn how to decode it.
According to the American Nutrition Association, 70 Million Americans suffer from digestive issues every day. Recent estimates suggest that 4 Million Americans experience frequent constipation and 10-15% of the U.S. population suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Most disturbingly, many are not aware of their condition. Many people think that their irregular bowel movements and the discomfort that stems from this are normal. We’re here to tell you that it is NOT and that it does not have to be this way.
What Makes a Healthy Bowel Movement?
So, let’s go over what healthy bowel movements look like, what is considered unhealthy or irregular, what you should consider when it comes to why you might be experiencing digestive discomfort, and most importantly, how you can help yourself feel better.
To determine whether your poop is healthy, let us consider the following:
- Frequency: Regular bowel movements are typically defined as 1-3 bowel movements per day. Anything less than 3 bowel movements per week is considered constipation. On the other extreme, anything considered more than 3 bowel movements per day is considered diarrhea.
- Smell: It is natural for feces to have a slightly unpleasant smell as they consist of undigested food particles, bacteria and other waste products that your body is getting rid of. However, if your stool has a very unpleasant, possibly even foul smell, then this could be an indication for an imbalance of bacteria and a possible overgrowth of certain harmful pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi) in your gut microbiome (a.k.a. the composition of good bacteria in your gut).
- Consistency: The Bristol Stool Chart is a great tool to help you identify where you are on the consistency and normalcy of your stool. It was developed in 1997 by Ken Heaton, MD, from the University of Bristol. Type 3 and type 4 are the “gold standard” of stool. Type 1 and 2 signal potential constipation, whereas types 6 and 7 signal diarrhea.
[image source: Bladder and Bowel Community]
- Color: The natural color of human feces ranges from a medium brown to a lighter, yellowish brown. If your feces have a gray coloring, this may signal that the connection between the gut and the liver is blocked. If you observe gray coloration of your feces, consult your doctor.
Similarly, there should not be any blood in your stool. Blood can show up as light red (fresh blood) or a dark red, almost black coloration. In either case, consult your doctor! One exception is that your feces may temporarily have a red hue if you ate large amounts of red beetroot.
What to Consider When Your Stool Seems Abnormal
If your stool has an abnormal frequency, smell or consistency, consider the following.
Are you eating enough dietary fiber (leafy greens, beans/peas, apple, banana, chia seeds, gluten-free oats)? Fiber is a critical component to keeping the good, healthy bacteria in your gut well fed and your bowel movements regular.
Are you drinking enough water every day? Constipation is linked to dehydration in the colon, so too little water intake can lead to constipation.
Unresolved food intolerances may also disrupt your healthy digestive processes. If you have ongoing digestive discomfort, especially after eating certain foods, we recommend working with a healthcare practitioner to determine whether food allergies or sensitivities exist.
Cutting out specific foods from your diet may alleviate symptoms and improve digestion as well If you are unsure which foods might be causing you problems, we highly recommend the Elimination Diet – a quick Google search will show you many links, articles and books on how to approach this.
Several studies have established a link between regular physical activity and healthy bowel movements. If your bowel movements are sluggish and infrequent, consider adding some more physical activity and exercise (e.g., walking, biking, yoga) to your daily routine. This simple change in lifestyle may work wonders on your digestion and has many additional beneficial effects on your overall health.
If you are experiencing constipation, diarrhea or other symptoms such as bloating or flatulence, it is very possible that your gut microbiome is out of balance. You can do stool testing to determine whether any pathogenic bacteria, viruses or fungi are present in your gut.
Sometimes, prescription medications are required to eliminate these pathogens. However, many times, a high-quality probiotic supplement can be incredibly helpful in restoring and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome with a healthy bacterial diversity.
Certain medications can have a negative impact on your digestion. This can be due to a variety of things, including changes to the gut microbiome, reduction in blood pressure in the intestine, or changes to muscle movement. Depending on whether the medications are causing constipation or diarrhea, you may find some relief with dietary changes (e.g., drinking ginger tea or prune juice to aid constipation). In addition, maintaining a healthy, diverse gut microbiome with the help of a high-quality probiotic supplement will also support your gut while taking medications and keep your bowel movements on the right track.
The gut is especially sensitive to stress and many good, healthy bacteria in the gut die off during stressful times.
This causes inflammation in the gut, which leads to the tight junctions in the gut barrier breaking and resulting in leaky gut. Pathogens can now travel into the bloodstream, causing inflammation throughout the body, which can manifest in digestive discomfort, as well as muscle pain, brain fog, weaker immunity, to name a few possible ailments.
In addition, if you experience stress for prolonged periods of time, your body goes into “fight or flight mode.” When in fight-or-flight mode, your body redirects blood flow away from the intestines toward the organs directly involved in “fight or flight” (i.e., your heart, lungs and brain).
This redirection of blood flow slows down the digestive processes and muscle movement in your intestines, which can lead to constipation. Research shows that the gut and the brain are in constant communication. Prolonged periods of stress can even alter the composition of your microbiome, cause inflammation in your gut and lead to permeability of the gut barrier.
Inflammation in the gut can also lead to changes in your frequency and consistency of bowel movements.
For individuals more prone to diarrhea during times of stress, this is often due to the fact that stress has an impact on your enteric nervous system (i.e., the nervous system of your digestive system).
During times of stress, your body produces more corticotropin-releasing factors (CRF). These hormones are responsible for speeding up the movement of your large intestine, which can mean that your body gets rid of the content of your large intestine before it has the ability to extract all the water. You experience this as diarrhea.
More Serious Health Conditions
More serious health conditions could also be the underlying causes of persistent digestive discomfort, including diarrhea and constipation. Therefore, it is important to work with a healthcare practitioner if your symptoms persist or get worse.
Hopefully, this article has shed some light on this often ignored, but extremely important and fascinating topic. Fortunately, for many, there are simple changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle to help regulate your bowel movements and feel your very best. Just keep in mind: If your symptoms persist or get worse, seek help from a healthcare practitioner!