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It’s not a topic we want to spend a lot of time thinking about, but our bowel movements—consistency, color, and frequency—can give us key indicators about our overall health.
A bowel movement is the term for the waste matter from the bowels after food has been digested. Its size, shape, color, and odor depend on the amount of time it spends in the colon, which is part of the digestive system. Its appearance and consistency depend on your diet, medications, hydration levels, and overall lifestyle.
Regular, soft, and brown bowel movements are indicators of good digestive health. The definition of “regular” varies from once a day to three or four times a week.
Having one irregular bowel movement isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. However, it’s important to monitor your stools and talk with your doctor about any unusual changes. MedStar Health gastroenterologists have these conversations every day, and we’re here to help you understand what your stools can tell you about your digestive health.
Healthy stool color.
Stool can vary in color depending on diet and digestive health. Here are some common colors and their possible causes:
- Brown: This color of stool is considered healthy due to the way the body digests food and the normal processes of the gut.
- Green: Antibiotics or iron supplements, along with green vegetables and certain drink mixes, can cause green stool. This color can also indicate food moved too quickly through your gut, which could mean a bacterial infection or gastrointestinal disorder.
- Yellow: If you have yellow stool that looks greasy and has an unusual odor, it may be a sign of poor digestion. However, it is normal that babies who are breastfeeding may have yellow stool.
- Red: Tomato soup, red candy, fruit punch, and Jell-O may cause red stool, but bright-red stool could indicate bleeding somewhere in the digestive tract.
- Black: Medications such as Pepto-Bismol or iron supplements can cause black stool. Dark foods such as blueberries can also cause dark stools. However, jet-black stool—without consuming any of the above items—may indicate bleeding in the stomach or small intestine, and you should immediately contact your doctor or visit an emergency room.
If your stool features these colors and there is no distinct explanation, talk with your doctor—especially if it happens more than once or twice and if you have other symptoms, such as abdominal cramping.
Bowel movement consistency.
While stool color is important to note, it’s only one factor in good digestive health. You should also consider the shape and consistency of your stool and how long it takes you to pass a bowel movement.
The Bristol Stool Chart is used by medical professionals for clinical assessments, but it’s also a helpful tool if you’re looking to monitor the health of your bowel movements. The chart, developed in 1997 by researchers from Bristol, England, includes the following seven types and what they indicate:
- Types 1 and 2: Lumpy and hard to pass, these stools indicate constipation, or the infrequent passing of dry, firm stools.
- Types 3 and 4: Smooth and commonly shaped like sausages, these are the ideal stool shape and consistency.
- Types 5, 6, and 7: Ranging from soft blobs to no solid pieces, these stools indicate diarrhea, or the frequent passing of loose stools.
When to call the doctor.
It can be scary to find blood in your bowel movements but try not to panic—call your doctor to discuss your symptoms and concerns. Blood in the stool signals bleeding in the digestive tract, and it can appear as bright red or black depending on where the bleeding occurs.
Possible causes of blood in the stool include anal fissures or hemorrhoids, stomach ulcers, diverticulitis, or polyps. Call your doctor if you see blood in your stool, particularly if you also have persistent stomach pain or discomfort. Your doctor can determine the cause of your symptoms and create an appropriate treatment plan.
Tests to diagnose the cause of blood in stool range from blood testing to an endoscopy and/or colonoscopy, which is a procedure used to view the rectum and colon. Diagnostic colonoscopy is useful to find the cause of many types of digestive symptoms. As of 2022, the American Cancer Society recommends that patients age 45 and older with an average risk of colorectal cancer get a colonoscopy every 10 years.
Tips for healthier bowel movements.
If you have one bowel movement that looks different, or one that is hard or loose, it usually isn’t cause for concern.
Studying the Bristol Stool Chart can give you a good idea of what’s happening with your bowel movements:
- Lumpy and hard stools—which indicate constipation—can be lessened by drinking more water and eating high-fiber foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, and beans.
- Smooth stools—which may be sausage-shaped—indicate healthy digestion.
- Loose stools—which indicate diarrhea—are usually symptoms from a temporary illness, like a stomach flu, and pass within several days. Simple diets for stomach upset, like the BRAT (Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, Toast) diet, can also help solidify stools and lessen diarrhea.
However, if you persistently have lumpy and hard or loose stools, talk with your doctor. It’s also time to consult your doctor if you find blood in your stool, which can indicate a serious problem.
In addition to drinking more water and eating foods with plenty of fiber, it’s also important to get consistent amounts of physical exercise. Even short periods of walking, running, or swimming can help improve your natural digestion and move stool through your system.
Here are a few other pointers:
- Cut back on nutrient-poor foods and instead focus on well-rounded meals with fiber, protein, and healthy fats.
- When nature calls, answer. Don’t hold in your stool as suppressing it can lead to hemorrhoids.
- Get plenty of rest and relaxation. Your gut will appreciate more sleep and reduced stress levels.
We all poop, and you should never hesitate to approach your doctor with questions or concerns about your digestive system. MedStar Health gastroenterologists are here to help.