What is stool?
Stool, or faeces are the remains of food that bacteria have fermented in the gut and that the small intestine could not digest or absorb.
Stool is around 75 per cent water, but the amount of water in each stool may vary depending on numerous factors. Between 25-54% of the dry weight of stool is made up of bacterial biomass, which is both alive and dead organisms.
The remaining amount is frequently undigested carbohydrate, fibre, protein, fat, dead epithelial cells from the walls of the gastrointestinal tract and small amounts of metabolic waste products. Stercobilin, a breakdown product of red blood cells and bile, is responsible for the colour.
Is the colour of my bowel movement normal?
Bowel movements can be a range of colours and can be a reflection of your intestinal health. All shades of brown and even green are considered normal. However, stool colour can sometimes indicate a potentially serious intestinal condition.
If your bowel movements are light-coloured, yellow, clay-coloured, or very light brown, this may be a sign of:
- An infection or inflammation (swelling) in your gallbladder, liver, or pancreas
- Alcoholic hepatitis, which is inflammation in your liver caused by alcohol consumption
- A blockage in the bile ducts, the part of your digestive system responsible for moving bile from your liver and gallbladder to your small intestine. Such blockages may be caused by gallstones or narrowing of the ducts themselves.
Your stool can become black if you eat foods such as black liquorice and blueberries or if you’re taking iron supplements. However, it can also be an indicator of bleeding or tumours in your digestive tract.
Blood in your digestive tract can cause your stool to appear red. A small amount of bleeding can be a result of constipation, or if you are a woman having her period, but it can also be a sign of:
- Bleeding in the rectum or anus
- Abnormal blood vessels
- Blood supply being cut off to parts of your digestive system
- Swelling in the lining of your stomach
- Food such as beetroot, particularly if you are not used to consuming it
- A foreign object being stuck in your digestive system
- Cancer of parts of your digestive system.
Please contact your health care practitioner if you are concerned about the colour of your stool.
How often should I have a bowel movement?
The frequency of bowel movements varies from person to person. Some people may have a bowel movement every day, while others may every other day. The important thing is staying regular. If there is a sudden change in the frequency of your bowel movements, there could be a cause for concern.
If your stool is too loose and watery and you have to go more than three times in one day, it is likely you have diarrhoea. Although inconvenient, diarrhoea can mean that your body is trying to get rid of something in your digestive system.
There are different causes for diarrhoea, some of which include:
- Bacteria or parasites from contaminated food or water
- Viruses such as the flu, norovirus, or rotavirus
- Medications with magnesium, such as antibiotics or antacids, or even magnesium itself
- Food intolerances
- Diseases of your stomach, small intestine, or colon, such as Crohn’s disease
- Problems with your colon, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Diarrhea is a common problem, and it usually goes away on its own. If it lasts more than a few days, though, it can be a sign of a more serious problem, and you should see your primary care provider.
Diarrhea in children — especially infants — can be particularly dangerous because they can get dehydrated quickly and become very sick. Occasionally, diarrhea can be normal, but it is important to monitor it. You should not hesitate to see your child’s health practitioner if you are concerned.
Stool that is hard, dry, and/or painful to pass is called constipation. If you are only having three or less bowel movements per week you might have constipation.
Some causes of constipation are:
- A diet low in fibre, which is a nutrient found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- A lack of exercise or physical activity
- Medications such as antidepressants or opioids
It is important to note that you don’t need to have a bowel movement every day; however, if your bowel habits change or are causing you pain, talk to your primary health care practitioner.
What is normal, what is not?
Stools can come in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes so you might be wondering - what is normal? The Bristol Stool Chart simplifies why different types of bowel movements look or feel a certain way.
If your stool never seems to sink in the toilet bowl, that can reflect your diet and certain health conditions:
- Poor absorption of nutrients — called malabsorption
- Too much gas, which can occur with a change in your diet
- A gastrointestinal infection
Usually, floating stool is not a cause for concern on its own. However, if you have other symptoms, such as significant weight loss, talk to your primary health care practitioner.
Bowel movements won’t smell like roses, but the odour should be familiar. If a sudden change in the odour has you running for the air freshener each time you go to the bathroom, this can be a sign of a problem such as:
- Celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Chronic pancreatitis, which is inflammation of your pancreas
- Cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that can affect your lungs, pancreas, liver, kidneys, and intestines
- An intestinal infection, which can be caused by a virus, bacteria, or parasites in your intestine
If you did not make any major changes to your diet and your poop suddenly has a strong odour, once again talk with your primary health care practitioner.
What is the best position to have a bowel movement?
Humans have squatted for years and years until the modern toilet appeared, our colon had a natural kink that helps maintain continence.
A sitting posture only partially relaxes the tight muscle around the colon, blocking the flow of waste. Ideal toilet posture fully relaxes the muscle allowing the colon to empty quickly and completely.
Research has found that a squatting position reduced the time necessary for satisfactory emptying of the bowel in comparison to sitting on a toilet or sitting on a toilet with a significantly lower bowl.
Tips to achieve healthy bowel movements
Eat plenty of Fibre: Aim to get the recommended minimum daily amount of fiber, which is 25 grams (g) for women and 38 g for men under 50 years old; women over 50 should aim for 21 g while men over 50 should consume 30 g daily.
Drink plenty of water: A reasonable amount is about 8 glasses per day. It is especially important to stay hydrated when consuming more fibre.
Take probiotics: These beneficial bacteria can be found in capsule form. Probiotics have been found to aid in relief from constipation, as well as infectious diarrhea.
Magnesium: Magnesium hydroxide is often used to treat constipation. It is safe for most people, although it is not recommended for people with renal insufficiency.
Exercise: Staying physically active can encourage normal bowel function and can alleviate constipation. It also relieves stress, a common cause of abnormal bowel movements.