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Healthy bowel function: how does normal poop look like?
One of the major challenges during a heatwave is to drink enough water, so you don't end up dehydrated because the body evaporates so quickly.
One of the more painful results of dehydration is needing to spend much more time in the restroom, sometimes even resulting in a hemorrhage.
Vice versa, we eat more salads and BBQ-foods, both of which are known to cause diarrhea due to improper preparation or preservation.
It is quite obvious that in order to have a pleasant and not too long stay in the restroom, our stools should neither contain too little nor too much water. Most of us will probably have a habit of quickly inspecting their stool, even if it is just the brief moment before flushing it down the toilet. Apart from observing the consistency of your stool, what else can you observe from inspecting your stool?
What are the different types of poop?
Poop, also known as stool or feces, is a normal part of the digestive process. Poop consists of waste products that are being eliminated from the body. It may include undigested food particles, bacteria, salts, and other substances such as improperly absorbed drugs.
Sometimes, poop can vary in its colour, texture, amount, and odour. These differences can be worrying, but usually, these changes are not significant and will resolve in a day or two. Other times, however, changes in poop indicate a more serious condition.
Important facts about poop
- Poop can come in different shapes, colours, and smells
- A person should pass a normal, healthy poop easily and with minimal strain
- Anyone who has blood in their stool should seek urgent medical attention.
What is normal poop like?
It is generally:
- Medium to dark brown: This is because it contains a pigment called bilirubin, which forms when red blood cells break down.
- Strong-smelling: Bacteria in excrement emit gases that contain the unpleasant odour associated with poop.
- Pain-free to pass: A healthy bowel movement should be painless and require minimal strain.
- Soft to firm in texture: Poop that is passed in one single piece or a few smaller pieces is typically considered to be a sign of a healthy bowel. The long, sausage-like shape of poop is due to the shape of the intestines.
- Passed once or twice daily: Most people pass stool once a day, although others may poop every other day or up to three times daily. At a minimum, a person should pass stool three times a week.
- Consistent in its characteristics: A healthy poop varies from person to person. However, a person should monitor any changes in the smell, firmness, frequency, or colour of poop as it can indicate there is a problem.
The Bristol stool chart
Devised by doctors in the Bristol Royal Infirmary, England, and based on the bowel movements of nearly 2,000 people, the Bristol stool chart characterizes the different types of poop as shown below.
Types 1 and 2 indicate constipation, types 3 and 4 are considered healthy stool, while types 5 to 7 suggest diarrhea and urgency.
What colours can poop be?
While brown poop is considered the “normal” colour of poop, some greenish-brown hues may also be acceptable.
Poop can be other colours too, such as:
Stools that are black, especially if they have the appearance of coffee grounds, suggest gastrointestinal bleeding. Substances such as iron supplements, black licorice, black stout, and bismuth medications also cause black poop.
If stools are white, gray, or pale, a person may have an issue with the liver or gallbladder as pale stools suggest a lack of bile. Some anti-diarrhea medications cause white stools.
Spinach, kale, or other green foods can cause green poop. However, green-coloured stool may be a sign that there is too much bile and not enough bilirubin in the poop.
While normal poop is usually brown, other colours are possible, including black or white.
Poop that is red-coloured may be the result of gastrointestinal bleeding. Small amounts of blood in the stool can indicate hemorrhoids.
Eating beets or red berries, or drinking beet or tomato juice, also turns poop red. Once these foods have passed through the digestive tract, poop should become brown again.
Consuming many orange-coloured foods, which are rich in a pigment called beta-carotene, causes orange stool.
Carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squash are among the many foods that contain this pigment.
However, blocked bile ducts or certain medications including some antacids and antibiotics can cause orange poop.
If stool appears yellow or is greasy-looking, it suggests the poop contains too much fat. This may be the result of absorption issues, or difficulty producing enzymes or bile.
Most people will experience variations in stool colour at some stage. Usually, this is down to diet or some other minor cause. However, anyone who experiences changes in poop colour that last for 2 or more weeks or has red or black stool should see their doctor.
How long should a poop take?
At most, it should take no more than 10 to 15 minutes to pass stool.
People that take longer than this may have constipation, hemorrhoids, or another condition.
Types of abnormal poop
The following situations may suggest a digestive issue:
- pooping too often (more than three times daily)
- not pooping often enough (less than three times a week)
- poop that is coloured red, black, green, yellow, or white
- greasy, fatty stools
- excessive straining when pooping
- pain when pooping
- blood in the stool
- bleeding while passing stool
- watery poop (diarrhea)
- very hard, dry poop that is difficult to pass
What causes abnormal poop?
Abnormal poop can have many causes, ranging from minor to severe. Causes can include:
Digestive conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), can be triggered or exacerbated by stress. In some people, it can manifest as diarrhea and in others as constipation.
Not drinking enough water and other fluids can lead to constipation, as stool requires moisture to be able to move through the digestive tract. Too much alcohol can contribute to dehydration.
Lack of dietary fiber
Fiber acts as a binding substance to give stool its form. It also helps poop to move smoothly through the digestive tract. A diet that is low in fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and pulses, can lead to bowel problems.
Food intolerances and allergies
People with an intolerance or allergy to certain foods can often experience diarrhea, constipation, or other traits of abnormal poop when they consume a problematic food.
For example, people with lactose intolerance often experience diarrhea if they have dairy, while those with celiac disease will have an adverse reaction to gluten.
Certain conditions can cause constipation, diarrhea, or other poop abnormalities. Examples of such conditions include:
- an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)
- inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Parkinson’s disease
See a doctor if changes to poop persist for 2 or more weeks.
Seek immediate medical treatment if the stool is bright red, black, or resembles coffee grounds. This suggests blood loss, which could become a medical emergency if left untreated.
Tips for a healthy bowel function
Eat enough fiber
Aim to get the recommended minimum daily amount of fiber, which is 25 gram for women and 38g for men under 50 years old; women over 50 should aim for 21 g while men over 50 should consume 30 g daily.
Drink enough water
A reasonable amount to stay hydrated during normal weather is about 8 glasses per day. It is especially important to stay hydrated when consuming more fiber. During a hot summer day we need substantially more water as we sweat a lot more.
Beneficial bacteria can be found in capsule form, but also in fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir and Sauerkraut.
Buttermilk is generally not produced by means of fermentation. Probiotics have been found to aid in relief from constipation, as well as infectious diarrhea.
While an over the counter laxative like milk of magnesia with magnesium hydroxide can be used to treat constipation, a safer natural approach is to eat natural laxatives like prunes which have been rehydrated by soaking in water.
Bowels are more easily emptied when we defacate in a squatting position. It may help to elevate the feet slightly so as to mimick this squatting position.
Staying physically active can encourage normal bowel function and can alleviate constipation. It also relieves stress, a common cause of abnormal poops.
A well-functioning digestive system is essential for health and wellbeing. It also suggests that a person is eating a balanced diet.
Poop abnormalities that persist can lead to complications. For example, ongoing diarrhea can result in nutritional deficiencies while constipation can cause bowel obstructions.
Normal poop tends to be brown, soft to firm in texture, and easy to pass. If someone experiences changes in poop, they should monitor the changes and consult a doctor if the issue does not resolve within 2 weeks.
To encourage a normal bowel function, a person should eat a fiber-rich diet, take regular exercise, try to reduce stress, and drink lots of water to stay hydrated.