What Can Your Poop Tell You About Your Digestive Health?

Be a total No. 1 when it comes to knowing your No. 2s.

poop emojis

Image, iStockphoto.

Once the potty-training stage of life is over, most people don’t think twice about pooping. But it at times, it’s worth pondering: Your, ahem, leftovers can offer valuable insight into what’s happening with your digestive health. “It’s something that most of us don’t want to talk about,” says Vancouver-based registered dietitian Desiree Nielsen, “but we really should be paying attention to our bathroom habits.”

Here’s what you should be looking for:

How often should you poop?

First, the good news: People often judge their digestive health based on how many times they poop a week, but that’s a mistake, says Karen Kroeker, a gastroenterologist and the program director of gastroenterology at the University of Alberta. Anywhere from three times a day to every three days is normal — though if your frequency changes, it might be a sign that you’re constipated or have diarrhea.

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What does healthy poop look like?

The most important thing to look at is form. If your poop is very hard or pellet-like, you’re probably constipated. Constipation is common, because the average North American diet is lacking in fibre: It’s recommended that people get 25 to 30 grams of fibre a day, but most only get 6 to 8 grams. (To increase your fibre intake, look for whole-grain products, consider eating a high-fibre cereal in the mornings, aim for seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and incorporate legumes, nuts and seeds into your diet.)

Not drinking enough water or getting enough exercise are two other common culprits. Chronic constipation is linked to everything from hemorrhoids to blood sugar spikes to an increased risk of colorectal cancer. It’s often also very uncomfortable. “I have people who are severely constipated, and after two or three months of focusing on getting the bowels moving properly, they’re like, ‘Wow, I have so much energy. I feel so much better,’” says Nielsen.

On the other side of the spectrum is diarrhea, which often looks like loose, watery stools. It comes in two forms. The first is acute, and resolves on its own within two weeks. It usually isn’t a problem unless you also have other symptoms like fatigue or a fever, in which case you should consult your doctor. Chronic diarrhea is more serious, especially if it’s accompanied by weight loss or blood, which can be a sign of autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s, celiac disease, or microscopic colitis. Diarrhea that doesn’t go away also might be C. difficile — a superbug that’s becoming more common and is characterized by chronic diarrhea that people often get after taking antibiotics.

What if my poop smells bad?

It turns out that some people’s shit really doesn’t stink. Or at least it stinks less. “Some people have smellier poops — it’s just part of their natural makeup,” says Nielsen. But if you’re catching a whiff that’s out-of-the-ordinarily foul, several things could be to blame. One is eating a lot of foods that contain sulphur, like broccoli, cauliflower, eggs or meat. If your diet hasn’t changed, you might want to see a doctor, because the smell could be a sign that your body hasn’t been able to properly break down what’s in your body, due to issues like diarrhea, IBS, or Crohn’s or celiac disease.

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What is a healthy colour for poop?

Don’t worry too much about the shade of your poop — all kinds of brown are fine, says Kroeker. Colour changes, though, are worth thinking about. Some are harmless and diet-related: beets can turn your poop red-ish, and Pepto Bismol or iron supplements can make it black. But others are worth seeing a doctor about. The biggest red flag is seeing red — from blood, says Kroeker. “It can be something quite benign like hemorrhoids, or go all the way up to colitis or cancer.” Black can also be a sign of bleeding, usually from your upper GI tract. Green poop can be a symptom of diarrhea, and yellow may be a sign that your body is having trouble processing fat. If your poop is grey, it might be even more serious, from liver disease or cancer.

Should poop float?

Some poops float, and some don’t. For the most part, it’s not worth stressing about, because it’s probably due to what you ate. “If you have very floaty poops, you’re probably eating a lot of gas-producing foods, like beans or cabbage,” explains Nielsen. In that case, the poop is floating because it’s full of trapped, unprocessed gas. But it can also float because it has too much fat in it. “If your stool floats, you should look to see if you have oil droplets on the water,” says Kroeker. That’s a sign that your body isn’t breaking down fat correctly, and it might be related to a problem with your pancreas or gallbladder, or a chronic disease like celiac.