Not the most glamorous topic, right? But how our bodies eliminate waste can be an important indicator of our overall health and well-being. Knowing what to look for before you flush can help you make the dietary and lifestyle adjustments needed to ensure a healthy gut. And it can be important information to relay to your health practitioner.
So let’s get things moving.
Poop, as we all know, is a byproduct of the digestive process. When we eat, our bodies break down foods so that the small intestine can easily absorb the nutrients they contain. The leftover waste products are then passed to the large intestine, where the body absorbs any remaining water and electrolytes. That waste is passed out of the body through the rectum and anus in the final stage of digestion, known as defecation, pooping, or “having a bowel movement.”
Most people poop once, twice, or even a few times per day. The key is regularity. Stools can be light or dark brown (stool color can vary depending on the food you eat) and should be soft and easy to pass.
Your poop can tell you a lot about how well your digestive system is working. Pay attention to anything new, such as changes in consistency, frequency, or color. These changes could be a sign that you need to drink more water or up your fiber intake. Or, they could signal an underlying health condition such as irritable bowel syndrome or malabsorption.
There’s an easy-to-read diagnostic tool known as the Bristol Stool Scale that can help you determine what’s normal for you and help you talk with your healthcare practitioner about how well your digestive system is working.
Types of Poop
Developed as a clinical assessment tool in 1997, the Bristol Stool Scale is widely used in both research and healthcare settings to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments for bowel-related issues and to communicate and categorize symptoms. Research studies frequently use the scale to validate patient responses to treatments, including probiotics, laxatives, psyllium, and prescription medications.
The Bristol Stool Scale categorizes poop according to seven “types” based on appearance and consistency:
- The first type is known as type 1, which is characterized by hard, separate lumps that are difficult to pass. This type of defecation indicates constipation and is often caused by a lack of fiber in the diet, dehydration, or a sedentary lifestyle.
- Type 2 is also characterized by hard, lumpy stools, but they are less compact and pass more easily than type 1. This type of stool also indicates constipation and is often caused by factors similar to type 1.
- Type 3 is considered the ideal type of stool. It has a sausage-like shape with cracks on the surface and is easy to pass. This type of stool often indicates a healthy digestive system.
- Type 4 is characterized by smooth, soft, and sausage-shaped stools that are easy to pass. Also considered ideal, this type of stool indicates a healthy digestive system.
- Type 5 is characterized by soft blobs with clear-cut edges that are easily passed. This type of stool is often caused by stress or anxiety.
- Type 6 is also soft, but it is mushy with ragged edges and indicates mild diarrhea.
- Type 7 is liquid or entirely watery and indicates severe diarrhea.
It’s important to note that the appearance and consistency of stools can vary from person to person. While types 3 and 4 are considered “normal” stools, any deviation from these types may not necessarily be a cause for concern. However, significant changes in bowel movements, such as persistent diarrhea or constipation, shouldn’t be ignored as they may indicate underlying health issues that need to be addressed.
The Importance of Gut Health
Maintaining a healthy gut (a.k.a. gastrointestinal system) is essential for proper digestion and the efficient elimination of waste products from the body. The gut contains trillions of microorganisms that play a vital role in digestion, nutrient absorption, and immune function. A healthy gut microbiome is essential for optimal health and can help prevent various health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and inflammatory bowel syndrome.
So, how can you keep your gut and digestion healthy? Here are a few simple tips:
- Stay hydrated. Water is critical for healthy digestion, as it helps your body break down foods for nutrient absorption. Water also helps soften stools so you can avoid constipation. A generally accepted rule of thumb is to drink six to eight 8 oz. glasses of water daily. But this can vary depending on your weight and how much you move (and sweat!) every day. This is where your urine can help you know how you’re doing. It should be straw-colored. Drink when you’re thirsty, and choose water instead of sodas and sugar-laden drinks.
- Choose the right foods. What you eat has a tremendous influence on your gut health and your overall well-being. In general, stick to whole, unprocessed foods that are rich in fiber. A high-fiber diet can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut and aid in healthy elimination. High-fiber foods include veggies, fruit, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. Good choices include apples, berries, avocados, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, squash, gluten-free oats, flaxseed, and chia. Eating fermented foods or supplementing with a good probiotic can help you maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Processed foods and sugar can disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut.
- Sleep well. Our health is dependent on good sleep – and so are the beneficial bacteria in our digestive systems. That’s just one reason why it’s so important to get adequate rest. Seven to eight hours a night is a great target. Establish a regular bedtime and turn off your electronics an hour before. Keep anxiety-producing media and conversations to a minimum in the evening. A cool, dark room also promotes a restful night’s sleep.
- Stay active. Regular exercise can promote gut health by increasing blood flow to the digestive system. Exercise also helps keep food moving through the gut, which in turn can help you avoid constipation. The key is to find an activity you love so that you’re motivated to do it regularly!
And if you're experiencing any unusual gastrointestinal symptoms, don't be shy about talking to your doctor. Unexplained weight loss, chronic constipation or diarrhea, abdominal pain, foul-smelling or mucousy poop, and stools that are black in color are all reasons to seek medical attention. Listen to what your poop is telling you, and you’ll be happy you did.