Most people are at least moderately intrigued by their poop – and the vast majority of us peer into the toilet after a bowel movement to view what our bodies produced. As embarrassing as the subject can be, looking is the right thing to do.
Paying attention to the color, size, shape and smell of your poop can tell you a lot about your health. When it comes to poop, “normal” is a relative term.
“Instead of focusing on achieving a certain ideal, you should tune in to changes in what has always been normal for you,” says Radhika Aggarwal, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Henry Ford Health. There are ranges of normal in terms of frequency, color, size, shape and consistency that could offer clues about how your body is functioning.
Answering the Embarrassing Questions
Here, we ask Dr. Aggarwal to answer your most pressing questions about poop:
Q: What factors affect your poop?
A: What you eat is the main factor in the consistency and frequency of your stool. The amount of fiber and water in your diet, as well as whether you’re eating greasy or fried foods, can dramatically affect how often you visit the toilet. Travel, hormonal shifts, medications and multivitamins, and your activity level also affect your bowel habits. The appearance and experience of your bowel movements can vary from day to day and also change as you age.
Q: What is the “normal range” for frequency?
A: The idea that good bowel health requires a daily poop is a myth. Anywhere from three times a day to once every three days is within the normal range. If you’re going more or less than those benchmarks, your bowel habits are probably in the abnormal range. But that doesn’t mean it’s harmful. If you go three times a day without abdominal pain or discomfort, that’s probably normal for you. If, on the other hand, you have a daily bowel movement but suffer from abdominal pain, you may want to discuss it with your health care provider.
Q: Which poop colors are concerning?
A: People are often very concerned about color, but the color of your poop is really based on what you’re eating and the amount of bile in your stool. Anything from light yellow to dark brown is normal. Abnormal colors that can be concerning include:
- Bright red could be a sign of gastrointestinal bleeding (unless you’ve ingested a lot of cherries, beets or red food coloring).
- Black indicates digested blood, unless you’re taking an iron supplement, or have recently taken Pepto Bismol, which may turn stool black.
- Gray or clay-colored may indicate a blockage in the bile duct.
Q: What is normal in terms of consistency?
A: Something called the Bristol Stool Scale can help you determine whether the consistency of your poop is “normal.” Types 1 and 2 are constipated, type 3 and 4 are in the normal range, and types 5 through 7 are leaning toward diarrhea. If you fall in the constipated range, eating more fiber and drinking more water can help. If you’re on the other end of the spectrum, eating more fiber can also help since it bulks up your stool. Your goal: soft, fully formed stools that are easy to pass without straining.
Q: How do you know if your stool is concerning?
A: An abrupt change in your bowel habits can indicate something happening in your body. Constipation may be an indication that you’re not getting as much water, fiber or exercise. It could also arise from a multivitamin or medication you’re taking. Loose stools can be a sign that you’re suffering from a food intolerance, reaction to medication or inflammation in the colon. Changes can also be a sign of a more serious health concern like a blockage caused by cancer or a mass or something slightly more benign like a hormonal dysfunction such as thyroid disease. In any case, if you notice a big change from your norm that lasts more than a few days, seek advice from your doctor.
When it comes to analyzing your poop, paying attention to change is the best thing you can do.
“If your stool has always been a certain way, it usually doesn’t indicate something wrong is going on with your body,” says Dr. Aggarwal. “Instead, look for things like a change in your bowel habits especially if associated with abdominal pain, blood in the stool or changes in appetite or weight loss, which could be signs of something more serious.”
Most important, stay on top of your colon health. If you’re age 50 (or older), get a colonoscopy. If you’re under 50 and have a family history of colon cancer, talk to your doctor about the right time to start screening. And no matter what, consult with your primary care provider if you notice any change in your normal bowel habits.