It’s no secret that gut health is important. You can’t look at any nutrition- or health-related site without seeing more and more details about the microbiota and how influential those little guys are. While there’s no question that a healthy balance of good gut bugs is critical, there’s more to gut health than just microorganisms.
The three main components of gut health are:
- Effective digestion and absorption, which ensures we are getting the nutrients out of our food and into our bodies. Having good digestive capability means that our bodies are:
- Producing the right digestive juices in our mouths, stomachs, pancreas and small intestine
- Moving food along at the right pace – not so slow that it causes problems like bloating and constipation, and not so fast that we can’t absorb the nutrients as they whiz by
- Absorbing the nutrients into the cells that line the digestive system and then into our blood stream.
- Integrity of the gut wall, which is our first defense against bad bugs that try to get into our bodies through our digestive system. A strong and secure intestine keeps the bad stuff out while also allowing the good stuff to get in.
- Healthy balance of microbes from our mouths to our rear ends, which influence our digestion, absorption, immune system, neurotransmitters, and hormones.
I’ve tried to give you lots of information about how to keep your entire digestive system happy, from writing about acid reflux / GERD and healthy microbiota balance to describing a leaky gut and its causes. I’ve also told you what to do if you have constipation or diarrhea. Heck, I even recorded a video to talk about poop!
Even with all that, there’s still a few pieces of information that can help you figure out what’s going on with your digestive system. And those details come from your poop itself.
Okay, okay, I know that looking at and smelling your poop is not your favorite activity. In fact, you may stop reading this since I’ve even suggested it! But, being willing to take a quick peek in the toilet bowel after you’ve done your business can help you recognize more about how your digestive system is doing.
Did you leave? No? Whew! 🙂
The most common attributes of poop (frequency and consistency) are described in detail in my posts about constipation and diarrhea. So, let’s consider some other aspects of your feces to round out your knowledge.
The color of your poop can give you clues about how well your digestion is working and how healthy your intestines are. Ideally, the color would be a medium brown, like the color of plain cardboard. Other colors can indicate:
- Dark color (towards black): bleeding in the esophagus, stomach or small intestine (the color is dark because the blood has time to dry as it travels through the rest of the digestive tract before being eliminated); taking certain supplements including iron or charcoal; using aspirin or bismuth subsalicylate (i.e., Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate) on a regular basis; dysbiosis; eating black licorice, blackberries or other very dark colored foods, or excessive meat consumption (due to the extra iron). A dark color can also be an indicator of lots of fat soluble toxins being removed from the body, as they are often carried into the large intestine via bile, which makes the stool a darker color. On the one hand, this is a good thing as it means your detox processes are working well; on the other, it might mean you’ve got too many toxins going in.
- Red: often bleeding in the large intestine or rectum (the blood hasn’t had a chance to dry before it is expelled from the body), but it may also be a bleed higher in the digestive tract if the transit time is very fast; ingestion of very red foods like beets
- Yellow or pale: typically means a fast transit time through the digestive system, as in diarrhea (this is a problem because it means you probably aren’t absorbing as many nutrients from your food as you could); can also mean insufficient bile output, which is necessary for fat digestion; bacterial or parasitic infection; antibiotic use; also common in people who have GERD / acid reflux or cystic fibrosis
- Green: too fast transit time through the GI tract; certain medications such as ciprofloxacin, Lexapro, NyQuil, and Zantac; alcoholism; doing a gall bladder or liver cleanse can cause green globules to show up in the feces, but doesn’t necessarily turn the whole stool green
- If the stool floats all the time or has a greasy appearance, this can be an indicator that fat is not appropriately digested and/or absorbed into the body. This may be caused by insufficient lipase or bile acid production (which could be linked to a liver, gall bladder or pancreas problem) or due to a condition such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease or cystic fibrosis which compromises the intestines ability to release these digestive juices. On a positive note, a floating stool can indicate a high fiber diet so keep that in mind as you’re looking to see if it is also shiny (the way something looks when coated in oil).
- If the stool is especially smelly, this can also be an indicator of poor fat digestion / absorption due to the same causes given above. However, offensive smelling poop can also be caused by food decaying in the intestines (one of the reasons we need to poop every day) or dysbiosis.
- If the stool sinks quickly to the bottom of the bowl, you may not be consuming enough fiber or water. Ideally, the poop would slowly sink (i.e., not sit on top of the water and not drop like a rock), although I get you may not be in a position (literally) to watch what happens.
- Mucus in the stool usually means there is inflammation in the intestine due to constipation, diarrhea, an infection by a microorganism, a food sensitivity, pancreatitis, or colitis.
- If there are undigested food particles in the stool, that can be a sign you are eating too quickly and not sufficiently chewing your food, as digestion begins in the mouth. It can also mean you don’t have sufficient stomach acid or pancreatic enzymes so digestion isn’t completing enough for the nutrients to be absorbed.
Now that you have all that information, I want you to realize that the key to poop interpretation is to look for trends. Over time, you will know what color your poop generally is and how certain foods affect that. You’ll also figure out how it changes when you’re sick or pregnant (maybe, if that’s a thing for you) and whether or not you can digest corn (some people just can’t) and when you ate lunch so fast that you didn’t chew properly.
If your poop changes (especially if it turns red or black and tarry and you suspect a bleed somewhere in your GI tract), talk to your doctor immediately! This particular change can be an indicator that something bad is happening.
Even if you don’t think there’s a big problem, don’t be afraid to talk to your healthcare practitioner about what you see as there are lots of ways to resolve the issues mentioned above and get your digestive system to function effectively and efficiently.
Oh, and if your healthcare practitioner won’t talk to you about your poop, talk to me! You know by now how much I love this topic of conversation. 😉
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.
— Allen S. Gastrointestinal Health from a Functional Medicine Perspective. Webinar held on February 11, 2015.
— Dicken. Are You Checking Your Stool for Abnormal Changes? Accessed March 27, 2017.