Although it’s known by many names—poop, turd, feces, stool—bowel movements aren’t something most of us like discussing. Even so, eliminating this waste from the body is a normal and essential function. Plus, your poop can tell you a lot about your health. So today, let’s dive into this rather personal, yet important, subject.
To understand why your poop matters, it’s important to understand how the digestive process works. The digestive process starts in your mouth when you chew. Your saliva moistens the food so it moves more easily through your esophagus into your stomach. Saliva also has enzymes that begin to break down the starches in your food. After you swallow, a process called peristalsis pushes the food down your esophagus into your stomach. Once there, stomach acid and enzymes break down the food you’ve eaten.
From there, the food enters your small intestine, where your pancreas secretes an array of enzymes that break down carbs, fats, and proteins. These key macronutrients are then absorbed into the bloodstream via millions of tiny, fingerlike projections called villi, before traveling to the liver where they are converted into a form that can be used by your cells. Bile ducts carry bile from your liver to your gallbladder for storage, or to the small intestine for use. Your gallbladder stores bile between meals. When you eat, your gallbladder squeezes bile through the bile ducts into your small intestine. What’s left in the small intestine passes into your large intestine where billions upon billions of bacteria transform it into waste that can be eliminated from the body.
The Scoop on Poop
A bowel movement is essentially the last phase in your food’s journey as it winds through your digestive tract. There is no standard when it comes to pooping. Everyone’s system is different, so if you’re concerned about how many times a day you should poop, it really depends on your body. Everything from the consistency and size of your stool to how long it takes the body to pass it is based on the individual. That said, it’s important to keep track of any changes in bowel habit. For example, let a health care professional know if you experience things like uncomfortable bloating, painful bowel movements, extremely hard stools, constipation, uncontrolled diarrhea, or feeling that your colon never fully empties.
While we’re on the subject of the bowels, let’s talk about passing gas. Gas is a by-product of the bacteria in your colon, digesting leftovers of the foods you eat. Bacteria produce hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and methane. There is no healthy or unhealthy amount of gas. How much you pass mostly depends on what you have eaten.
If you can’t seem to leave the bathroom due to diarrhea, you might be wondering what caused the problem, and when it’s time to seek the help of your doctor. Luckily, diarrhea almost always passes on its own, but if it doesn’t, or you begin to notice more symptoms, you might have more questions. Most cases of diarrhea are caused by a virus that infects your gut. This can come from contaminated food or from germs passed by unwashed hands. If you do find that you have diarrhea, it helps to stay hydrated. Staying hydrated is important, because your body loses a lot of water through diarrhea. In fact, dehydration is often times more dangerous than the minor infection your body is fighting. Staying hydrated, eating ice chips, and eating simple, bland food like rice should help to calm your stomach. In all, the ordeal should last no more than two or three days. If you notice symptoms lingering after three days though, you should contact a health care professional.
What does it mean if your poop changes color?
Pay attention to the color of your stool, especially if it changes. Talk with your doctor if you experience bloody or black stools.
Light colored. This may be a sign of infection, inflammation, or a blockage in your bile ducts.
Red. Blood in your stool can cause your poop to appear red. A tiny bit of bleeding can be a result of constipation or hemorrhoids.
Black. Black stools can indicate bleeding in your gastrointestinal tract. However, eating things like black licorice or blueberries, or taking an iron supplement, can turn your stool black as well.
About 16 percent of adults experience symptoms consistent with constipation.1 Constipation is generally described as having fewer than three bowel movements a week. It most commonly occurs when waste or stool moves too slowly through the digestive tract or cannot be eliminated effectively from the rectum. This may cause the stool to become hard and dry. Though occasional constipation is pretty common, some people experience chronic constipation. This is defined as having infrequent bowel movements or the difficult passage of stools that persists for at least several weeks, interfering with daily life. Chronic constipation has many possible causes, including:
Blockages in the colon or rectum. Blockages may slow or stop stool movement. This can be caused by tiny tears in the skin around the anus, a blockage in the intestines, narrowing of the colon, and more.
Problems with the nerves around the colon and rectum. Neurological problems can affect the nerves that cause the muscles in the colon and rectum to contract and move stool through the intestines. Causes can include multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injury.
Conditions that affect hormones in the body. Hormones help balance fluids in your body. Certain conditions that upset the balance of hormones and may lead to constipation include diabetes, over/underactive thyroid, and pregnancy.
There are some steps you can take to prevent constipation. First, include plenty of high-fiber foods in your diet like beans, vegetables, fruits, and whole grain cereals. Second, eat fewer low-fiber foods like processed foods, dairy, and meat products. Also, drink plenty of fluids (half your body weight in ounces per day is recommended), stay active, and try to get regular exercise.
Another thing that may help to improve your digestive health is a quality daily probiotic. Probiotics are a great way to inject a bit more beneficial bacteria into your diet. Research shows that taking a probiotic supplement can help support digestive health and may help prevent other digestive problems as well.2 Just be sure that the supplement packaging indicates that the bacteria will be live at the expiration date, rather than simply live at the time the supplement is manufactured. Keep these supplements in a cool, dark, and dry location to promote the stability of the beneficial bacteria inside.
Bottom line? Pay attention to your poop! It can give you better insight into your health. And if you ever feel concerned about the frequency, color, or anything else surrounding your stool, we recommend contacting a health care professional.
- Definition and Facts for Constipation. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. 2018 https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/constipation/definition-facts#:~:text=Constipation%20is%20common%20among%20all,older%20have%20symptoms%20of%20constipation
- Brown AC, Valiere A. Probiotics and Medical Nutrition Therapy. Nutrition and Clinical Care. 2004; 7(2):56-68.
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.
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