A lot, actually! A bowel movement is the last stop your food makes as it goes through your digestive tract. Sometimes called stool or faeces, this is what’s left of your food and drink after your body absorbs important nutrients.
What and how you eat affects your digestive system and sometimes your bowel movements can change simply because of changes in your diet. Other times, changes in bowel movements signify something more serious. What’s “normal” depends on each individual person — but there are some signs you can look for that mean something may be off.
The best way to check in with your gut via your poop is… to have a look in the bowl! It’s totally free too and it’s an invaluable resource to discover what’s going on inside you. You don’t have to inspect every single splash-down, but try having a quick look around once a month! And keep an eye out for these 5 main poop personality traits:
Consistency: You’re aiming for a type 3, 4 or 5 on the Bristol Stool Chart.
Frequency: Anywhere from 3 times a week up to 3 times a day is considered ‘normal’.
Time: Most people go in the morning, but there’s no right or wrong time… when you need to go, go!
Colour: varying shades of brown.
Size: Larger poops (about the size of more than 2 eggs) are linked with a lower risk of colon cancer.
A good rule of thumb when it comes to your bowel is that ‘normal’ can look like anything from going to the bathroom three times per day to three times per week. By checking in monthly and learning what’s normal for you, can help identify abnormalities and when to be concerned. If you are worried or if something has changed, then talk to your health professional.
The Bristol Stool Chart is a useful reference for patients and healthcare professionals to check if the form of poop is healthy – it looks at size, shape and consistency. The Bristol Stool Chart depicts 7 types of stool, ranging from the hard and difficult to pass to the liquid form of diarrhoea. Your poop is made up of waste products your body needs to remove, which may include undigested food (such as insoluble fibre, which cannot be digested), bacteria and salts.
The good news is that if you have Bristol Type 3 or 4 – your poop is normal! You’re getting enough water and fibre, and your stools are healthy.
Bristol Type 1 or 2, where the poop is hard and difficult to pass, is indicative of constipation. Often, these types of stool can be painful to pass. Short-term constipation is nothing to sweat about – but if you’ve been experiencing it for weeks or even months, it’s a good idea to see your GP who may prescribe some medication or refer you to a gastroenterologist to get it checked out.
Constipation can be an indicator of the following conditions:
Poor lifestyle choices – A sedentary lifestyle, a diet lacking in fibre or simply not drinking enough plain water.
Diabetes – Poorly managed diabetes can damage the nerves supplying the digestive tract, causing constipation.
Thyroid conditions – Low levels of thyroid hormone often lead to chronic constipation.
Pregnancy – An increase in the hormone progesterone during pregnancy relaxes the muscles in the lining of the digestive tract, leading to more sluggish movement of the bowels and constipation.
Bowel obstruction – When a blockage inside your colon prevents your waste from passing through your digestive tract, constipation can be one of the first signs, but abdominal pain or cramping and a bloated stomach are other important indicators. You must contact your doctor immediately if you suspect bowel obstruction – it’s very serious.
Bristol Types 5 through 7 are consistent with diarrhoea. Type 5 suggests that a lack of fibre is the main problem, while 6 and 7 suggest an inflammatory process. When there’s too much water but not enough fibre in your stool, it causes your poop to become too soft – usually, the fibre in your poop soaks up the water.
Inflammatory diarrhoea occurs as a response to food poisoning, other severe infections or as a result of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis).
The colour of adult poop can also reveal a lot about your health:
Dark brown – A healthy colour caused by bilirubin – a pigment released by the breakdown of old red blood cells.
Black – Iron supplements and certain foods and medications can cause black stools, but a black, sticky, tar-like appearance may be due to gastrointestinal bleeding.
White – A lack of bile caused by issues with the gallbladder, liver or pancreas can cause pale grey or white stools.
Green – Certain plant foods can cause your poop to turn green. Green poop can also be due to too much bile or too little bilirubin.
Red – Certain red foods can cause your poop to turn red, but red-coloured poop can also be the result of intestinal bleeding or haemorrhoids.
Orange – Foods rich in beta-carotene, such as carrots, can turn your stools orange. Blocked bile ducts and certain medications can cause your poop to turn orange as well.
Yellow – A yellow or greasy-looking stool may contain too much fat — due to malabsorption or a lack of certain enzymes (including bile).
Bowel frequency varies from patient to patient, but research showed that most people poop anywhere between 3 times a day to 3 times a week! Everyone has their own routine and typically you may find yourself passing stools at the same time every day. If there is no pattern to your pooping then there may be an underlying gastrointestinal issue.
Poop should smell bad, as it’s made up of all the stuff your body needs to get rid of including bacteria that give off strong smelly gases. However, truly foul-smelling stools may be the result of an infection, Inflammatory Bowel Disease or Coeliac Disease.
Remember that although all of these factors are important, make sure you don’t self-diagnose. If you’re concerned about your poop, contact your GP.