Everybody poops, but nobody really talks about it. But while putting a lid on all potty talk may keep conversations civilized, it may mean we’re missing out on valuable clues to our health.
Your poop can tell you if you’re eating enough fiber and drinking enough water, or if your digestive system is processing food too slowly or too quickly. Also, lasting changes in your bowel habits or the appearance of your poop can be a sign of a medical condition that requires treatment.
Read on to learn what your poop can tell you, how you can easily describe it and why it’s good to talk about it. Just hold off on sharing the details of your latest bowel movement until after dinner. There should be some limits, after all.
Poop health 101: What’s normal?
After you go to the bathroom, turn around and take a look. Based on what you see, do you wonder: Is my poop normal? Do I have healthy poop?
Turns out there’s a lot of variety in what’s normal. Just as everyone poops, everyone’s poop is different. And your poops may not be exactly the same every day. However, there are some general characteristics of “normal poop”.
A normal stool size is at least a couple inches in length, and ideally between four and eight inches. Tiny poops aren’t good. You shouldn’t be pooping out pellets – not unless you’re a bunny, deer or other wild animal.
People use a lot of different expressions when they talk about having a bowel movement. But in terms of accuracy, the ones comparing poop to logs are probably the closest.
The healthiest shape for poop is a long cylinder. When poop takes on other shapes, it may indicate something could be going on with your digestive system.
Poop firmness or consistency
Ideally, your stool should be somewhere between firm and soft. Thankfully you can figure this out just by looking at it – there’s no need to do a touch test. If your poop is a well-formed log and it wasn’t too hard to squeeze out, it’s probably the right consistency.
What’s a normal stool color? Normal poop is brown and comes in every color from tan to espresso. The brown color is largely due to bile and bilirubin.
Bile is a yellowish-green fluid made by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Bilirubin is an orange-yellow substance that the body makes through the normal process of breaking down red blood cells. Through the digestive process, these fluids mix with your foods and usually make your poop brown.
Other poop color meanings
The color of your poop generally reflects what you consume – whether that’s food, beverages or medicines. While brown is the most typical color, there are other colors we may see in the toilet. Here’s what the color of your poop might mean about your health:
Black poop: There are a few reasons why your poop may be black, including taking iron supplements or a bismuth medication like Pepto Bismol. But black stool can also mean that you have bleeding in your upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Any internal bleeding is an issue, so if you can’t figure out why your poop is black, make a primary care appointment right away.
Green poop: If your poop is a little greenish, it’s totally fine. Green poop may signal that your food isn’t spending enough time in your digestive system or that you’re eating a ton of leafy greens like spinach. And if your poop suddenly looks like neon green playdough, the likely cause is artificial colors from drink mixes, bakery frosting or frozen novelties.
Red poop: There are dietary reasons why your poop may turn red – beets, cranberries, red gelatin or tomato juice. But red poop can be a cause for concern because it may mean you have bleeding in your colon – this can be a sign of colon cancer or digestive disorders. Bloody stool may look coated in red, or you may notice spots of red in it. If you can’t explain the red color by your food choices, get in touch with a primary care doctor.
Yellow poop: If your poop is yellow, greasy and stinky, it probably means that you’ve been eating too much fat. But sometimes it can be a sign of malabsorption, which means that your body isn’t able to pull nutrients from food during digestion. Malabsorption usually happens due to sickness, food intolerance or diseases that affect the intestinal lining.
Pale or white poop: Chalky is not a good look on poop. It may mean your body isn’t producing bile. It could be that you have an infection or that your bile duct is blocked. Pale poop could also be a side effect of medicines, including some used for diarrhea.
Timing of bowel movements
The most normal time to poop is in the morning after your body worked overnight processing your food. But there’s nothing wrong with having bowel movements at other times of the day.
How long it takes you to poop
It should take just a couple minutes for you to have a bowel movement – certainly not more than 10-15 minutes. If there’s pain or straining to get your poop out, you’re probably constipated.
How often should you poop
You don’t need to poop every day to be regular. It’s normal and healthy to have a bowel movement anywhere between three times a week to three times a day. If you’re producing soft, well-formed logs that aren’t hard to push out, your bowels are probably in good shape.
Poop never smells like a bouquet of roses. So if your poop stinks, you’re in good company. But if the smell of your poop makes your eyes water, that’s not normal. Most likely it’s due to an infection or a stomach bug, and your stinky poop will go away after you get better.
But in some cases, foul-smelling feces happens when your body is unable to process gluten or other nutrients. If you notice that your poop smells really bad after you eat certain things, bring it up to your doctor – especially if you’re experiencing unexplained weight loss, too.
Should poop sink or float?
Most poop sinks. But if your poop floats, it’s typically not something to worry about. Floaters are often caused by excess gas from eating things like beans or sugar-free candies. But if you have floating stools that are also stinky, it can be a sign your body isn’t processing food correctly because you have an infection, food intolerance, a digestive disorder or other medical condition.
The Bristol stool chart: Types of poop and what they mean
If you’re having pooping problems, you’re probably not thrilled at the idea of describing your bowel movements in detail when you visit the doctor. The good news is that you may not have to.
There’s a handy poop health chart that doctors often use to describe the type of bowel movements people have. The Bristol stool chart categorizes the shape and texture of bowel movements into seven types.
Chances are you’ll experience all these poop types at one time or another. But if you continue to have unhealthy poop types like constipation or diarrhea, you should talk to your doctor.
Shape and consistency: Type 1 looks like smallish, roundish pellets that are surprisingly hard to squeeze out – especially for their size. They typically look like marbles, nuts or berries.
What it means: If your poop is coming out in small balls, it means you’re constipated, and your stool might have been hanging around in your digestive system for a couple extra days. Normally it takes about three days for food to complete the journey through your digestive system.
Constipation is usually caused by diet or lack of exercise. Other causes are a blockage in the digestive system and conditions that affect hormones such as pregnancy or diabetes. It’s normal to be constipated occasionally, but if you’re always blocked up, it’s not good for your health.
Shape and consistency: Congrats! It’s a log – just not the healthiest kind. Type 2 poop looks like a lumpy log. You can tell it’s type 2 if it’s a log that took a bit of effort to get out.
What it means: If your number two is type 2, you probably have mild constipation. As with type 1, common causes can be diet, blockage and hormonal changes.
Shape and consistency: Type 3 has a sausage shape with cracks on the surface. It can look a little bumpy like a cob of corn. This type of bowel movement should slide out quickly with little effort. When you flush it down it shouldn’t fall apart.
What it means: Hooray! Your poop is normal, and your digestive system is working the way it should.
Shape and consistency: If you’re seeing a log that has a smooth surface like a sausage or a snake, then you have type 4 stool. This type is also easy to push out and should flush down in one piece.
What it means: Way to go! This shape is also normal. Whatever you’re doing, keep it up.
Shape and consistency: Type 5 stools are soft blobs with defined edges. They are smallish like type 1 but easy to push out.
What it means: Your diet may not have enough soluble fiber and your food was pushed through your digestive system too quickly.
Shape and consistency: With type 6, you’ll see mushy blobs with ragged edges. These stools can look a little like porridge.
What it means: You have mild diarrhea. This could be related to diet, illness or a medical condition. If you have chronic diarrhea, even a mild version, it can be difficult for you to get the nutrients you need from your food.
Shape and consistency: Type 7 is pure liquid with no solid pieces – like gravy.
What it means: You’ve got diarrhea. It can be caused by a variety of things, such as an illness or food poisoning. But it can also be caused by medical conditions or food intolerances to things like gluten or lactose.
Keep yourself (and your poop) healthy
Healthy poop – and a healthy you – depends on many factors, including diet, exercise, overall health, medications and stress. But lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise can go a long way toward producing perfect poo time after time.
Choose foods that support healthy digestion
Include colon-healthy foods in a diet that’s heavy on the fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Eating a rainbow of foods can help your body get the widest array of vitamins and minerals for the best colon health. Plus, eating whole foods makes it easier to get the fiber you need to move things along.
Drink plenty of water
Water helps break down food during digestion, allowing your body to pull out all the helpful nutrients. If you’re dehydrated, your body doesn’t have enough fluids to make your poop the right consistency, causing constipation. To stay hydrated, make sure you drink regularly throughout the day, especially when you’re thirsty.
Eat on a schedule
Eating on a schedule may help keep digestion on track – and give your body time to process your food between meals. Try to eat breakfast within one hour of waking and lunch 4 to 5 hours after breakfast. For best digestion, don’t eat dinner within three hours of bedtime. And since it takes 3 to 4 hours for your digestive system to fully digest food, adding a mid-morning and an afternoon snack can keep digestion moving between mealtimes.
Get regular exercise
Getting your body moving is a great way to keep digestion moving, decreasing the time that food spends in your colon and helping with constipation. And it doesn’t take a lot of activity to support poop health. Even walking around 10 to 15 minutes a day may do the trick. Stretching and yoga can help, too.
Stay on top of colorectal cancer screenings
Current colorectal cancer screening guidelines recommend you get screened beginning at age 45, or sooner if you have certain risk factors. There are different screening options available, including a colonoscopy and the FIT test, which is a poop test you can do at home. The starting age for colorectal cancer screening recently changed, so check with your insurance company to see what’s covered.
When to give your doctor the scoop about your poop
Sometimes a bad bathroom experience is just the result of a bad burrito. Sometimes constipation is caused by too much cheese. These things happen – even to the best of digestive systems.
But there are times when your symptoms may indicate a bigger problem, and you should talk to a doctor. So, watch out for changes in your bowel habits that last longer than a few days, including:
- Recurrent constipation
- Recurrent diarrhea
- Severe abdominal pain and indigestion
- Poop that is always very stinky and often floats
- Unintentional weight loss
- Red stools or black stools that cannot be explained by your diet. These poop colors may signal that you have bleeding in your digestive system, something that can be a symptom of a more serious condition. So, don’t put off making an appointment.
When you meet with the doctor, they’re going to want to know how your digestive system is – or is not – moving and grooving. Collecting this information can be as easy as keeping a tally of how often you’re going and the types of poop you have – there are even a variety of mobile apps out there to help you keep track.
It’s also a good idea to pay attention if the food you eat makes a difference to your bowel habits. And of course, make note of pain, bleeding, weight loss and other symptoms.
Based on your bowel habits and symptoms, your doctor will work with you to come up with a treatment plan. They may also refer you to a gastroenterologist, which is a doctor who specializes in digestive heath.
While no one really wants to talk about digestive problems, paying attention to what plops into the toilet can lead to a healthier poo – and you.