Let’s talk a bit about poo. Oh, you’d rather not? I understand. It’s not something most of us would choose to discuss in polite company.
But I really hope you’ll at least consider what I have to say on the topic, and here’s why: As it relates to your health, what exits your body is just as important as what goes in.
Your poo offers a view into your state of well-being. Basically, if the stuff coming out of you isn’t in optimal form, it suggests that some things inside of you aren’t going as well as they could, either.
The problem is, we rarely talk about our bowel movements (except in those families where they are discussed endlessly), so most people don’t have a lot of information to draw on regarding what is and is not considered good in the world of poo.
That’s actually quite a complex scientific subject, because at the biochemical level, there’s a lot going on in our waste that the naked eye can’t see.
Viewed under a powerful-enough microscope, a stool sample can reveal the health of the intestinal system, the quality of our digestion and nutrient assimilation, food sensitivities, our bodywide levels of inflammation, and the presence of certain pathogens, cancers, autoimmune disorders, and more.
Then there’s the study of the microbiome, that community of microorganisms that live in and on our bodies. Microbiome research — much of which relies on close examination of stool samples — is rapidly advancing, and it’s revealing that the balance of flora and fauna in our intestinal systems can have a huge impact not just on bowel health but on virtually every other part of physical and mental well-being.
So, poo matters way more than you might think. In fact, it is so powerful that many doctors now employ it as a medication, introducing healthy stool samples into beleaguered intestinal tracts (a procedure known as a fecal transplant) to help repopulate them with good bacteria.
This strategy is now being used to resolve a range of stubborn medical conditions (including, but not limited to, bowel disorders) that other medical interventions fail to treat.
Researchers are also exploring what they call the gut–brain axis, and finding that the balance of microorganisms in the gut can powerfully affect the brain, mood, and behavior, potentially playing a significant role in depression and anxiety.
There’s so much fascinating science to explore in this realm, but even without advanced lab testing, it’s possible to learn a lot about the state of your body by simply observing and evaluating your own poo situation on a daily basis.
Forgive me as I get a bit graphic here (and perhaps don’t read this while you are eating), but the specifics really matter.
Too often, when doctors ask their patients about their bowel movements, they get stock, flustered answers like, “Er, normal, I guess,” simply because most of us have never been educated about what “normal” means in this context.
It’s important to note that poo does vary from person to person, so generalizations can be dicey, but there are some guidelines that go for just about everybody. Three of the most easily discerned factors to consider are form, frequency, and comfort.
A healthy bowel movement is generally semisoft (vs. hard, pelletized, or liquid), and it comes out in a single continuous curve or coil that reflects the curving shape of your colon. (A disgusting but helpful reference point: A good poo comes out of your body kind of like firm, soft-serve ice cream comes out of a dispenser. Sorry, I know, so gross — but true.)
If it is a mixture of solid and liquid, that comes out in clumps, or that alternates between very hard and very soft, that suggests something in your system is wonky.
Similarly, if you see undigested food particles, or a floating haze of what looks like oil or mucus, that could be a sign you’re not breaking down and absorbing nutrients as well as you could be.
The form, texture, and color of your poo is often a direct reflection of what you have been recently eating and drinking. So, occasional poo weirdness may just be an indication your body isn’t wild about its recent care and feeding.
But ongoing, observable poo problems can be a reflection of more serious and chronic health issues, including food sensitivities, infections, microbiome imbalances, compromised bowel mechanics, and more.
The presence of blood in your stool (which may show up as red or black) can indicate problems at various stages of your digestive tract, and is best evaluated by a health professional.
If you tend to flush without looking, you may not recognize any of these signals. So basically, when you go, you gotta look.
While a daily poo is the standard for most people, a lot of progressive health professionals consider that a bare minimum.
Aiming for the smooth and steady transport of your food through the digestive system, they would prefer to see you go two or even three times a day, or as often as you eat a meal.
Logically, it makes sense that your body might be happiest eliminating batches of solids in more or less the same rhythm as it consumes them. But feeling an urgent need to go more frequently than that (or at alarming and unanticipated intervals) may be a sign that your digestion is off, that you ate something that disagrees with you, that you are overstressed, or that your bowel is irritated and inflamed.
Having less than one good bowel movement a day may suggest a holdup in the digestive system, which could be due to a variety of dietary and lifestyle factors, such as inadequate hydration, nutrients, or fiber; excess stress; or unidentified food intolerances (gluten and dairy being prime culprits for many).
Both overactive and sluggish bowel activity can produce all kinds of trouble over time, from skin issues to bodywide inflammation to chronic disease, so if you aren’t currently in a happy cadence with your bowel movements, it’s worth investigating and resolving the source of that trouble.
How you feel before, during, and after your bowel movements (as well as how you feel about them) may actually be the ultimate consideration.
Bowel movements are meant to be easy, quick, painless, and anxiety-free endeavors. If they’re not, don’t panic. There are lots of things you can do to resolve your issues.
The first thing to know: What-ever you find worrisome about your poo — whether that’s not being able to go, or being stressed by gassiness, bloating, or unexpected-poo surprises — it’s not something you have to tolerate.
On the contrary, it’s something to acknowledge as a stress signal from your body and explore further, perhaps with a qualified integrative physician or other digestive-health professional.
Seek out a partner who will help you address the root cause of your problem, not just the symptoms, because whatever is messing with your poo is probably also messing with a lot of your bodily functions.
The sooner you get the health of your digestive system handled, the sooner you’ll start to feel healthy, strong, energetic, and clear. You still might not want to talk a lot about poo, but you’ll have a lot more respect for the essential role it plays in your life.
“Way to Go” — The surprising health effects of constipation, plus how to get things moving again.
“Fiber: Why It Matters More Than You Think” — The essential role it plays in digestion and in whole-body health.
“Digestive Enzymes” — Includes a helpful overview of the digestive process.
“Poo” — A frank (and funny) bowel-related episode of The Living Experiment podcast.