Is my poop normal? Everything stool tells about your health

Shape, color, texture, frequency and smell: By checking your stool, you can see if you have health problems.

 Stomach pain (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Stomach pain
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Bowel movements give us firsthand knowledge on how our bodies are doing. 

When everything looks good, this is a positive sign that the body is generally functioning well and every system is working as it should. If our poop seems to have changed, this usually indicates a problem. Here are all the signs to check to see if you have a health problem.

First, remember not to strain yourself on the toilet. Also, it shouldn't hurt you. Your stool can tell you all kinds of things about your health, so check them occasionally. Look at the size, color and general shape of your bowel movements (yes, it's gross, but take a deep sniff).

Look for brown

Stools should be shades of brown, but green poop is usually fine too. Dr. Gabriel Neal, family physician and lecturer at Texas A&M School of Medicine, says that the food we eat takes about three days to turn into waste. He adds that green poop is usually from food that took a short time to digest but it's usually not a cause for concern. If the stool is very dark and looks like tar, it could be a sign of bleeding.

Frequency: How much is too much or too little?

Each and every one of us has a different schedule and "normal" isn't the same for everyone. 

 Bamboo compostable toilet paper.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Bamboo compostable toilet paper. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Usually, having bowel movements only three times a week or less is considered constipation. Yet, it's hard to define what is too high a frequency. Three times/day is considered normal for some people; others go less often. As long as your bathroom routine is consistent, everything is probably fine.

Be concerned if there's a significant change in the output schedule that you're used to. Slight changes in the frequency or texture of bowel movements don't usually indicate a problem, but if you've suddenly jumped from three times a week to three times a day, don't ignore this. 

It could also be something temporary and not dangerous. For example, you may have eaten something that made you feel bad, or you're dehydrated.

A really bad smell indicates a problem

There are stinkers, and then there's an unreal stench. The most influencing factor on the smell of stool is what you eat. 

Neal explained that food which doesn't break down properly reaches the large intestine and begins a process of fermentation in which sugars turn into gas, which will result in extremely smelly feces. 

Efficient and healthy functioning of the digestive system ends the breakdown of food in the small intestine, so very little food should reach the large intestine in its original form and ferment there. 

If you suspect that your stench is way beyond normal, contact your family doctor. Various medical conditions cause really smelly stools, including celiac disease or intestinal infections.

Soft vs. hard

Celiac disease affects only about 1% of the population, but many people with it are unaware they have it. 

When celiac patients consume gluten, it damages the finger-like bodies that line the inside of the intestines and damages their ability to absorb nutrients from food. As a result, diarrhea, abdominal pain, gas and nausea can occur.

Floating

Poop should sink into the toilet. When stool floats it may indicate excess gas in the digestive system. 

If it happens once in a while it's nothing to worry about. But if it's frequent, or your stools look oily, your body may not be able to absorb fats from food in a normal way, warns Neal. This could signal pancreatitis or celiac disease, so consult your family doctor.

You may be constipated even if you poop daily

Some people believe that if they have a bowel movement every day, they aren't constipated. But constipation is not just frequency, it's texture. If your poop is hard, lumpy and requires excess effort, you're constipated. 

The immediate cause is nutritional, specifically the lack of a sufficient amount of dietary fiber. The first thing to do is to start eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and various seeds for extra fiber.

Pay attention to the shape

Stool in its healthiest form should resemble a string of hot dogs. Hard or softer stools can signal a problem. Not every abnormality in texture and shape indicates a problem yet these can be symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, intestinal obstruction and in some cases also cancer of the stomach or colon. 

Stools in the form of thin films or the thickness of a pencil, for example, may be a sign of colon cancer.

Medicines can cause peculiar poop

According to Neal, many medications can cause diarrhea or an increase in bowel movements including antacids, certain types of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, etc. If you take medication regularly and experience changes in bowel movements, talk to your doctor about changes in doses which will help. 

Some medicines have the opposite effect and cause constipation. Certain medications change stool color. Medicines that treat abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhea whose active ingredient is bismuth subsalicylate can make stool very dark and even black. This is a temporary change that isn't harmful.

Blood in the stool is never a good sign

If you see blood, even a small amount, in your stool on a regular basis see your doctor. The problems that cause the appearance of blood in the stool can be anywhere along the digestive tract from hemorrhoids and fissures in the outer part or close to it to cancer, polyps in the intestine and ulcers inside the digestive system. All these situations require treatment.