From the colour to size & texture, it’s time to lift the lid on our toilet habits
What does your poop say about you? Yes, we’re getting straight in there. When it comes to our toilet habits, conversation can feel well, a little blocked up at times, despite it being a key part of our daily routine and its role as a valuable indicator about the inner workings of our gut.
‘Your stool provides a great insight into your health,’ says VJ Hamilton, a nutritional therapist. ‘Not only how frequently you pass a stool, but also the colour, shape and texture of it can indicate how well your digestive system is functioning.’
Wondering what to look out for? Here, VJ breaks down what our bowel habits may indicate about our overall health and how factors, such as diet and lifestyle, can influence everything from what our stool looks like to how easy it is to pass.
Hydration levels affect your poop
‘When you don’t drink enough water, the colon ends up taking more water from the stool,’ explains VJ, ‘which can create a hard-to-pass stool and constipation.’ When you are eventually able to push it out, you may notice that it looks like small, hard, dry lumps - a bit like animal droppings. But how much water should you be aiming for a day? The NHS recommends drinking six to eight glasses of fluid a day. ‘Drinking more water will help improve bowel habits,’ adds VJ. Noted!
A healthy poop = a smooth log
Poop can come in all shapes, but the ideal silhouette to look out for is one that’s ‘shaped like a sausage or log with a smooth surface that’s relatively easy to pass’, advises VJ. If there are a few cracks on the surface, don’t fret – the Bristol Stool Scale outlines that this is considered normal, too.
A case of the runs?
Runny poop, defined by the Bristol Stool Scale as fluffy, mushy or watery with no solid pieces, could be down to a tummy bug or that you’ve eaten something that’s disagreed with you. ‘It often occurs following acute infections as the body attempts to clear the pathogen. However, it may also be a sign of a food sensitivity or intolerance if it happens often,’ explains VJ. If this is the case, visit your GP who can carry out further investigations and maybe keep a food diary as a way of discovering any patterns in your eating habits that might be leading to less-than-firm stools.
Black and tar-like?
If your number two is black in colour with a tar-like consistency, it could be worth visiting your GP. If it’s a one off, then there probably isn’t an issue, but more often and it can be a red flag that needs investigating further. ‘It could be a sign of blood loss somewhere in the GI tract,’ says VJ. But try not to stress as ‘it can also result from taking iron supplements or medications containing bismuth’, adds VJ.
So, what colour should your poo be? Stools can range from shades of brown to purple and bear in mind that particular foods may change its colour (for example, beetroot can give it a dark pink colour).
Dry, hard or lumpy can indicate constipation
Constipation is common and can affect people of all ages. If your stool is dry, hard or lumpy and you’re going less than three times a week, it’s likely you’re backed up – ‘which may be a sign of dehydration’, says VJ. The NHS recommends eating more fibre, drinking lots of fluids and exercising regularly to boost bowel movement and get things ticking along again.
Speak to your local Boots pharmacist if diet and lifestyle changes aren’t helping. They may recommend a laxative, which is a type of medication that can help treat constipation.
Don’t stress ‘Pencil thin poop is usually not a cause for concern,’ assures VJ, ‘as it may just be the result of contractions in the colon.’ If, however, this change continues – ‘it might be worth consulting your GP as it could be a sign of a blockage in the colon.’ Seek advice if narrow stools last longer than a week or two.
Alcohol & caffeine may speed things up
Suddenly need to rush to the toilet after a cup of coffee? We’ve all been there. ‘Caffeine and alcohol can speed up the digestive process,’ explains VJ, ‘meaning that the need to pass stool may increase for some.’ Caffeine can also increase acid in the stomach, which can lead to heartburn in some. If you love your coffee, aim for just one or two cups a day or swap in herbal teas, milk or plain water where you can to potentially make digestive problems less likely.
Develop good bowel habits
‘Get into a regular habit with your bowel movements,’ suggests VJ, ‘for instance, go in the morning at the same time every day so that you routinely clear your colon.’ Give yourself plenty of toilet time, too, which may help if you’re constipated. And try not to fight the urge to go. ‘It is important to always go to the toilet when you get the urge as resistance can impact your bowel habits,’ adds VJ.
Bowel movement differs for everyone
How often should you poop? ‘Diet, age, activity levels and eating habits can all impact bowel movement,’ says VJ. And what’s considered ‘normal’ for one person, may not be ‘normal’ for another. While some people pass one stool every day, others may go every other day. The normal range of stools tends to be not more than three stools per day, not less than three stools per week. The key is to figure out what’s ‘normal’ for you, so that you can identify when this changes.
So, while there’s no such thing as ‘the perfect poo’, it’s all about finding the perfect poo for you. Next time you pass a stool, take a good look and keep an eye on any differences. If you notice anything of concern, don’t be embarrassed to speak up and book an appointment with your GP – talking about our bowels is far from the taboo topic it once was.