We all do it, but it isn’t the same for everyone. That’s because there are a lot of factors to “going number two.” How often you go, whether there’s discomfort or pain, the size, shape, consistency, and color of your stool, for instance, can all make a difference in the experience. Plus, having regular good bowel movements can say a lot about your gut health and general well-being. If things aren’t the best they can be in the loo, there’s still hope. From eating (or avoiding) certain foods to trying a new position, having a better poop may be possible.
The Link Between Poop and Gut Health
Before you head to the toilet to do your business, your body is hard at work digesting food, extracting the nutrients, and packaging the waste to discard. Unsurprisingly, how “well” you poop has a lot to do with what goes on in your gut. Our digestive systems are a playground for trillions of bacteria, which scientists suspect do much more than break down food. In fact, gut health might be linked to a range of health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and depression. Today, fecal transplants have even been used to replenish bacterial imbalance in people who experienced complications from antibiotic therapy. A number of factors can contribute to a healthy microbiome like regular exercise, and eating a plant-based diet.
What Makes a Good ‘Go’?
Your bowel movements can tip you off if something isn’t quite right in the gut. Frequency, the color of your poop, and its consistency can all speak volumes. Generally, a “normal” number of bowel movements varies per person, but it can range from three times per day to three times per week.
“It depends on what is normal for you,” says Michael Epstein, MD, principal physician at Digestive Disorders Associates in Annapolis, MD. “Going more than three days without a bowel movement on a regular basis or more than three times a day is considered outside of normal. Bowel movements should pass without straining and not be too hard or ball-like or too soft.”
The consistency as well as the color can also be good indicators of what’s going on in your gut. Paying closer attention to these factors can help you course-correct, if necessary. Ready? It’s time to take a more intimate look at your gut health like never before.
You are what you eat — and most of the time, so is your poop’s color. That, plus the amount of bile in your stool, usually determines what shade it is. Leaning more green? You might be doing great eating those leafy greens! It could also indicate that your food is passing through the intestine too fast, like when you have diarrhea. Usually though, green/brown stool is A-OK. White or clay-colored spots in your poop could be a result of medications you’re taking or from a lack of bile. While red or black could point to red foods (think beets) or iron supplements in your system, though it could also be blood. This might seem scary, but there are a number of potential causes. If your stool is bright red or black, or if you’re concerned about the color, the best course is to seek medical attention promptly to see what’s causing it.
Once upon a time, a diagnostic medical tool called the Bristol Stool Scale was created to classify poop into groups. These seven “types,” along with frequency and other factors, can be an indication of how healthy your bowel movements are, telling you at a glance where you range from “constipation” to “diarrhea.” It also makes a normally icky topic, dare we say, a little more fun? The seven types are:
- Type 1: Stools are separate, hard lumps, like nuts (difficult to pass)
- Type 2: Stools are lumpy. Think: classic sausage.
- Type 3: Stools are sausage-like with cracks in the surface
- Type 4: Stools are sausage-like but with a smooth texture. Think: A slithery snake.
- Type 5: Stools are soft, separate blobs with clear-cut edges (easy to pass)
- Type 6: Stools are fluffy pieces and mushy with ragged edges.
- Type 7: Stools are watery and in liquid form with no solid pieces.
Types 1 and 2 point to constipation; Types 3 and 4 are “ideal” because they’re well-formed and easy to pass; Types 5 through 7 could be a red flag for diarrhea or other underlying GI issues.
6 Simple Tips for Better BMs
Now that you know how to classify your poop and what it might be trying to tell you, remember that constipation and diarrhea are often the symptoms, not the problems themselves. If you’re suffering from either, making changes to your lifestyle habits and diet may make a huge difference.
1. Eat more fiber. There’s really no way to overstress the importance of a balanced, nutritious diet, and eating more plant-based foods plays a huge role in that. One study that examined the relationship between people’s nutritional lifestyle factors and bowel movement frequency found that being vegetarian and especially vegan was strongly associated with a higher frequency of bowel movements.
“Adding quality fiber is a very important first step,” says Inna Lukyanovsky, PharmD, a functional medicine practitioner who specializes in gut and hormone health. If you’re experiencing constipation and difficulty passing stool, upping your fiber intake could get things moving.
2. Increase your gut’s healthy bacteria. Fermented foods like kimchi and yogurt may help promote a diverse microbiota.
3. Drink more fluids. Clinicians generally agree that an adequate amount of fluids is necessary for proper bodily functions, including bowel movements. There’s no magic number to how much water you should drink, but it’s a good idea to keep a water bottle around and drink from it regularly, more when it’s hot or before you exercise.
4. Avoid certain foods and drinks. A diet high in sugar, fat, and dairy can cause constipation or diarrhea. Too much caffeine and alcohol can also do the same. If you have a lactose intolerance or other known food allergy, it’s best to avoid cheese, milk, and other dairy products for optimal gut health.
5. Squat, don’t sit. You may have seen all the toilet seat contraptions and heard all the high claims that a change in body position can help you have a more comfortable poop. It’s not all hype! One study asked 28 individuals to note how long it took them to have a “satisfactory” bowel movement six consecutive times in three different positions (sitting on a standard-size toilet seat, sitting on a lower toilet seat, and squatting). The results concluded that sitting needed “excessive expulsive effort” compared to squatting.
To get the effect of squatting on a standard toilet, try putting a stool under your feet to raise your thighs.
6. Try to relax. As it turns out, making a habit of straining can lead to nerve damage which can cause fecal incontinence. A simple solution? Relax!
“Sitting on the commode with quiet music or meditation and relaxation or breathing techniques is very helpful,” Epstein recommends.
When to See a Doc
Sometimes a bad go of it in the bathroom means something is wrong. Gastrointestinal symptoms like rectal bleeding are often harmless, but they can also be warning signs for serious health conditions. It’s best to report these symptoms to your doctor so they can evaluate them.
“Alarm symptoms, as we call them, indicate that something quite serious, such as colon cancer, might be going on in the bowels,” says Epstein. “It is time to see the doctor when you notice blood in the stools, weight loss, abdominal pain or fullness, loss of appetite, sudden and persistent change in bowel habits and any nausea or vomiting, fever that persists, sudden watery diarrhea or greasy or oily stools that persist.”
Also talk to your doctor if you have stool changes in color, consistency, or frequency. Your GI symptoms may be a warning sign for cancer or something more benign, like hemorrhoids. Have these symptoms checked out so you can get treated faster, or gain peace of mind if treatment isn’t necessary.