Bowel movements are your body’s way of expelling waste products after your intestines remove water and nutrients from digested food. Both the color and consistency of your feces can provide information about your health and the foods you ate that day. Regular bowel movements are an important part of your good health, although the regularity of bowel movements varies from person to person.
Although the color of your stool can change from day to day, all shades of brown are considered normal. The foods you eat and the medications you take can change the color of your stools. Eating green vegetables or foods with green food coloring can turn your stools green, while eating beets or red gelatin can turn your stools red. Iron supplements can turn stools black, and taking bismuth subsalicylate, a medication used to treat diarrhea or upset stomach, can turn the stools black or light.
Although having a bowel movement every day may seem to be ideal, doctors say that normal bowel movements can occur as often as three times a day or as few as three times per week. Every person maintains a different bowel elimination schedule. How much you drink and eat and how much you exercise may affect your schedule.
Normal stool has a soft consistency and isn’t uncomfortable to push out of your body. Hard stools that are painful to pass are a sign of constipation. If you have constipation, you may not have bowel movements as often as you normally do and you may have difficulty having a bowel movement when the urge strikes. Common causes of constipation include not drinking enough liquids, ignoring the urge to defecate, not getting enough fiber in your diet, using laxatives on a regular basis or not getting enough exercise.
Loose, watery stools common in diarrhea can also be a problem. Diarrhea occurs due to bacterial, viral or parasitic infections, food intolerances, bowel and intestinal disorders and diseases, and reactions to medications. Although diarrhea usually goes away on its own, when it lingers it can cause dehydration. Diarrhea that lasts more than two days may be a sign of a more serious problem and diarrhea that lasts at least four weeks may be a symptom of a chronic disease.
While foods and medications can change the color of your stools, changes can also occur due to health problems. Light- or clay-colored feces can be caused by lack of bile salts in your stool or if you have an obstruction in your bile duct. Bile helps your body digest fats and excretes waste such as bilirubin left over from red blood cells. Stools can appear green if you have diarrhea. Black stools can be a sign of bleeding at some point in the gastrointestinal tract, such as in the stomach or esophagus. If your stool looks bright red, bleeding may be occurring in the rectum.