3 Ways to Understand Abnormal Bowel Movements

Poop is a taboo subject, even though everybody has bowel movements — or at least everybody should. Your poop gives you clues about the state of your health, but it's up to you to pay attention to what your body is saying.

Your bowel movements give a look at your overall health. (Image: ben-bryant/iStock/GettyImages)

Researchers from the University of Bristol designed a healthy poop chart, called the Bristol stool chart, that compares unhealthy stool pictures to photos of what healthy poop looks like.

You can use this chart to compare your current bowel movements to what your poop should look like and then make any necessary lifestyle adjustments to get your body back on track. The three ways to understand abnormal bowel movements are size/shape, color and smell.

1. Check the Size and Shape

The Bristol stool chart categorizes poop into seven major types. Type 1 is characterized by small, hard lumps that are separate from each other and difficult to pass. Type 2 is similar to Type 1 in that it involves hard lumps, but with Type 2, the lumps are stuck together to form a sausage shape (that's still difficult to pass). These are the types typically associated with constipation.

Types 3 and 4 are normal, healthy bowel movements. Type 3 appears sausage-like, but has small cracks on its surface, while Type 4 has the same shape as Type 3 but is smooth and easy to pass.

Types 5, 6 and 7 fall into the "loose stool" or diarrhea category. Type 5 is small pieces with clearly defined edges that pass quickly and lack fiber. Type 6 describes a mushy stool with some defined pieces, while Type 7 is completely liquid stool with no solid pieces.

2. Look at the Color

This may not come as a major surprise to you, but according to Michael Cheng, MD, a gastroenterologist at Piedmont Clinic in Georgia, healthy stool is brownish in color. Any color deviations in your stool could mean that there's something undesirable going on underneath the surface.

If your poop is black, it may signal bleeding somewhere in the upper gastrointestinal tract, like the stomach, while bright red stool indicates bleeding in the lower gastrointestinal tract, like the large intestine, from anal fissures or hemorrhoids.

Green or light colored stools may be a symptom of bile duct problems, while gray stools can point to a liver problem. If your poop is yellow, it can be a sign that your body is having trouble digesting fat, which could be a symptom of an underlying condition like celiac disease or inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).

Changes in stool color can also happen with changes in your diet. For example, if you eat beets, your stool will likely be red. If your diet contains a lot of leafy greens, you may see a green tint. Certain medications can also cause changes in stool color. If you're concerned about the color of your stool, especially if you see blood in it, contact your doctor for a proper evaluation.

3. Take a Whiff

Poop stinks; there's really no way around this. But if your bowel movements are consistently clearing out a room, that may be a sign that something abnormal is going on underneath the surface. Although the smell of your poop may vary, in general, the odor is usually familiar. If your poop starts to smell really bad or unfamiliar, it could be a result of a variety of digestive issues or chronic health conditions, like:

  • Crohn's disease
  • Celiac disease
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Intestinal infection (viruses, bacteria, parasites)
  • Malabsorption
  • Blood in the stool

If a foul smell is accompanied by floating poop, it can signal malabsorption, pancreatitis or an infection. The odor of your poop can also change if you change your diet significantly, so it's not always a major cause for concern; but if you didn't change your diet and your poop starts to smell foul, check in with your doctor.

Change Your Diet

In addition to having easy-to-pass, brown, sausage-like stools that don't smell too funky, you should also be going number two between one and two times per day. If your stool is abnormal and your doctor determines that there aren't any serious underlying issues going on, there are some lifestyle and diet changes you can make to help normalize your bowel movements, which will undoubtedly improve your quality of life.

The first thing you can do is increase your fiber intake by eating lots of fruits and vegetables (with the skin on, whenever possible), beans, nuts and seeds. If you're a woman, aim for about 25 grams per day. If you're a man, go for 38 grams.

Too much fiber (and increasing your intake too quickly) can cause uncomfortable symptoms like abdominal pain and bloating, though, so boost your intake gradually and make sure to combine it with plenty of water.

Revamp Your Lifestyle

In addition to getting more fiber and water, you also need to make time to go to the bathroom. Rushing around, stress and emotional troubles can all negatively affect your stool. When it's time to go to the bathroom, find a place you feel comfortable in and set aside at least 10 minutes to empty your system. The ideal time to try is about 30 minutes following a meal.

It's also helpful to try to get your body on a regular bathroom schedule. Try to go to the bathroom at the same time every day, if you can. When your body gets used to a routine, it can make bowel movements easier to pass.

Exercising for 30 minutes every day can also help stimulate your bowel, decreasing the amount of time it takes food to move through the digestive system, and make going to the bathroom a more pleasant experience. If you're sedentary right now, even a light walk around the neighborhood can make a difference.

Correct Your Positioning

The correct positioning is also important for allowing the stool to slide easily out of the bowels. Many people sit hunched over on the toilet with their feet flat on the floor, but forcing your body into a squat-like position, which is more natural for your physiology, may be more beneficial.

Placing your feet on a stool that raises them 8 to 10 inches can help correct the angle of your pelvis and rectum and make it easier to have a bowel movement. Manufacturers make specialized stools especially for this purpose. It's also helpful to try to relax your body and your anus and breathe normally, instead of holding your breath and clenching.

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