Who Let The Doc Out?! #018: What your poop says about your health

Pooping is one of those things that everyone does, but no one really wants to talk about. However, more of us should be talking about it, because your poop can tell you and your doctor a whole lot about your health, from the number of times you poop, to the way your poop looks in the toilet.

So, let’s get into it.

Pooping habits: How often do you poop?

When it comes to frequency of passing stool, there is no single correct answer. Some people poop two or three times a day, while others poop just three times a week.

Most people will maintain a regular frequency of passing stool, and any major alterations in this frequency can be a signifier that something is not right with the person’s health.

Is it constipation?

Constipation is generally defined as having fewer than three bowel movements a week. However, as earlier mentioned, some people may have as few as two or three bowel movements a week and still be normal, while for others, having less than one bowel movement a day can be a sign of issues.

This is why most people have expanded constipation to encompass a general delay in your usual bowel pattern, usually associated with:

  • Dry and hard stool
  • Painful and difficult passage of stool
  • A feeling of incomplete bowel emptying

Constipation is a relatively common complaint, with most people having an episode or two every so often. However, for some people, it can be chronic and affect the quality of life.

The commonest causes of constipation include:

  • Poor dietary fiber intake
  • Poor water intake
  • Changes in everyday routines
  • Lack of exercise
  • Resisting the urge to pass stool

Usually, for most people, correcting these issues leads to a resolution of the constipation. However, in some cases, constipation can be due to more severe causes like:

  • Colorectal cancer
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Endocrine issues like hypothyroidism, diabetes, and excess calcium
  • Diverticulosis
  • Neurological disorders like stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis
  • Intestinal obstruction

This is why it is important to speak to your doctor if your constipation lasts longer than three weeks, causes severe pain, or if you see blood in your stool.

Is it diarrhea?

Diarrhea, defined as 5 or more loose watery bowel movements a day, is a common gastrointestinal problem. For most people, it is short-lived, usually caused by viruses, bacteria, or food reactions.

However, in some cases, it can be a symptom of severe disease. Some of the cases in which you should speak to your doctor include:

  • If there is blood in your watery stool or the stool is black and tarry
  • If you have a high fever
  • If you have diarrhea for more than 2 days
  • If you experience symptoms of severe dehydration like extreme thirst, confusion, dizziness, and weakness
  • If you have severe abdominal pain

What color should my poop be?

Color is another reliable indicator of gut health. Normal poop is usually brown, a color that is largely due to the chemical bilirubin and bile.

Abnormal poop colors can range from black to green to red. Here is a breakdown of what the different colors of poop might mean for your health:

  • Black: While it may occur if you are taking iron supplements or Pepto Bismol, which contains bismuth, black poop may also be a sign of upper gastrointestinal bleeding, and should warrant a trip to the doctor.
  • Red: Red poop can also be a result of dietary habits; things like tomatoes, cranberries, and beetroot may give your poop a red tint. But red could also be a sign that you have lower gastrointestinal bleeding, which could be due to hemorrhoids, anal fissures, or even cancer. Visit your doctor as soon as you notice it.
  • Green: Greenish poop may look scary, but it is actually common and not very concerning. It could be because you are eating a lot of green leafy vegetables like spinach, but it could also be a sign your food isn’t spending enough time in your gut.
  • Yellow: If your poop is yellow, greasy, and stinky, that may mean you have a high fat diet. But it can also mean your body has an issue with absorption, which can be a sign of other disease or nutrient deficiencies.
  • White or grey: Pale or chalky poop may mean your body isn’t producing bile, the chemical responsible for pigment. You may have blockage of your bile ducts, and a visit to the doctor would be a good idea.

Innocent Immaculate Acan is a medical doctor and writer. She won the Writivism Short Story Prize in 2016 and has published an illustrated children’s book titled The Pearl Trotters in Black, Yellow, Red. She was part of the 2018 class of the Young and Emerging Leaders Project.

Innocent Immaculate Acan