6 reasons you should care about your poop health.
Article by mc schraefel, Ph.D and Krista Scott-Dixon, Ph.D
Are your eating and lifestyle habits really working? Just ask your poo.
From smiling poo emojis, to poop cafes, to turd charts that go viral, excrement is having a moment. But for many, the question remains: Should you actually care about poop health?
Our answer: Yes! Bowel movements can either signal that you’re doing great, or suggest health challenges before other symptoms arise. In this article, 6 things to pay attention to when it comes to your poo.
Sure, you’ve seen those poop charts that make their rounds on Facebook.
You’ve laughed at the ridiculous smiling turds. Or funny poo GIFs.
Maybe you even chuckled at the idea of a poop café, currently one of the hottest food trends in Russia and East Asia (it’s already made its way to Tornoto, too).
Toilet-shaped dishes and poop emojis aside:.
Should we actually care about poop health?
Your poo can say a lot about you.
Good-looking poop can indicate that your health and fitness is where it should be. For instance, it can tell you:
- Your core muscles are strong.
- Your gastrointestinal system is pumping nicely.
- You’re getting plenty of fiber and other nutrients.
- Your hormones are happy.
- You aren’t overly stressed.
- Your intestinal flora are balanced and thriving.
If your poo isn’t looking so great, it might tell you something important. For instance, less-than-stellar poo might say things like:
- You may need to improve your nutrition.
- You may be stressed and anxious.
- You may need to drink more water.
- You may have a food intolerance.
- You may need more daily activity to help things move along better.
- You may have a health issue that’s standing between you and the way you want to look and feel.
Your poo is a clue.
In Precision Nutrition Coaching, we don’t talk doody on the first date. But we do get to it eventually.
Because our in-house Precision Nutrition coaches (as well as Precision Nutrition Certified coaches) know:
Digestive health says a lot about overall health.
If you’re feeling low-energy or sluggish; if you’re having trouble losing weight, feeling good, and/or getting in shape, your poo can help us get to the, ahem, bottom of things. (Sorry.)
First things first: Take a look at your poo.
Make like a toddler and peek into the toilet.
Check out the chart below and answer honestly:
What is your poo quality like most of the time?
As you can see, type 4 poo is what you want to shoot for. Types 3 and 5 are reasonably good, while types 1, 2, 6, and 7 shout, “Needs improvement”.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- How often are you going?
One to three bowel movements per day = ideal.
- How does it feel?
Assuming you didn’t eat spicy street meat last night, bowel movements should be quick and painless. They shouldn’t require straining, a panicked run to the toilet, or sitting long enough to do the entire New York Times crossword.
- What color is it?
Healthy poo is brown. The color comes from bile, which emulsifies dietary fat and helps us digest it. However, you may notice some normal day-to-day changes, like green poo after eating leafy greens, or red poo after eating beets.
- How does it smell?
It’s never going to smell like roses, but extremely foul-smelling poo can point to underlying issues.
- Does it sink or float?
Healthy poo may do either, but this offers hints as to the fat (float) to fiber (sink) ratio of your diet.
Of course, poo will vary a bit from day to day. One day of rabbit raisins or post-burrito shenanigans doesn’t mean there’s something horribly wrong with you.
You’re looking for the long-term trend — what’s common for you.
Taking the answers to all of these questions into account, you should have a good sense for where your poo falls on the health scale.
6 things your poo could be trying to tell you.
If your poo is zipping along just fine, as sleek as an otter and as regular as a Swiss watch, great.
If your poo could use a little… im-poo-vement (sorry again)… read on. It might be a cry for help.
The good news:
Many of these issues can be fixed (or at least improved) with better nutrition and more consistent health habits.
Message #1. Your gut could be working better than it is.
Most of the GI tract is a muscular tube that pushes food through with peristalsis, rhythmic muscular contractions that work much like squeezing a tube of toothpaste.
As food goes through this tube, it’s mushed up and chemically broken down so that we can absorb nutrients. And, of course, once we’re done with it, we excrete it as poo (or feces, if you would prefer the grown-up word).
When your gut is healthy and everything is working properly, it produces healthy poo. Problem poo can signal that something is interfering with your gut’s normal operating procedures.
Beyond factors like your microbial balance and your diet (which we’ll cover in a minute), things that could cause gut dysfunction include:
nutrient deficiencies autonomic nervous system (ANS) problems immune problems hormone imbalance blood sugar irregularities medical procedures such as bariatric surgery disrupted circadian rhythm (e.g. jet lag, shift work) medications like antibiotics and painkillers aging chronic diseases like Crohn’s and colitis
Why you should care
Because of how the enteric nervous system — your gastrointestinal “brain” — works, you often don’t feel pain when things are wrong in your gut.
(Though sometimes you may feel too much pain. This is known as “visceral hyper-sensitivity”, and it’s what folks with inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, often experience.)
So, you can’t always feel gut pain, and maybe you’re used to “problem poo”.
You may think: If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Well, many of the root problems in the list above are serious. At least a few of them are worth a call to your doctor.
In addition, the gut bone is connected to the brain bone. Your enteric nervous system constantly communicates with your central and autonomic nervous systems, which controls every voluntary and involuntary function of the body.
Emerging research suggests: The state of the GI tract affects the quality of this messaging from gut to brain.
So if your gut is unhappy, you might notice psychological and cognitive problems such as:
- brain fog
- anxiety, depression or other mood disorders
You may also have other physical problems such as:
- trouble controlling your weight
- asthma and allergies
- autoimmune disorders
- skin conditions (e.g. rashes, acne)
- arthritis / joint inflammation
- heart disease
- neurodegenerative disease
- narcolepsy or other sleep disorders
- kidney problems
These, obviously, will make it pretty hard to look and feel your best.
How to fix it
Choose whole, minimally processed foods like fruit, vegetables, and fresh meat — the richest sources of the nutrients your gut needs.
Practice eating slowly and mindfully, and tune into your physical hunger and satiety cues.
This will help take care of any deficiencies and ensure that your food doesn’t move too quickly through the GI tract, which can hinder nutrient absorption.
And if you’re truly concerned (or even think you might be truly concerned), it’s never a bad thing to sync up with your doctor and make sure there aren’t more serious problems that need addressing.
Message #2. Your microbiotic balance is messed up.
Our microbiome is the vast, complex and rich ecosystem of commensal, or friendly, bacteria (and sometimes fungi) that live on and around us.
These little critters are everywhere: in our noses, our mouths, our skin, and in our gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
The bacteria in the gut — or the gut flora — help us digest and absorb food by breaking down carbohydrates, and by helping to create digestive enzymes.
Healthy poo is a sign that your bacteria are doing their job. Problem poo may indicate your gut bacteria populations have taken a hit. Gut bacteria can be affected by things like travel, a change in diet, or a course of antibiotics.
Why you should care
The gut flora have many jobs that go beyond digestion. These can include:
- Protecting the body from pathogens
- Boosting the immune system
- Making certain vitamins, such as biotin (vitamin B7), folate (vitamin B9), and vitamin K
And, of course, let’s not forget that struggling gut flora means struggling gut function — so see above for a long list of health consequences in that department.
How to fix it
You want lots of gut critters, and lots of different types.
To nourish the bacteria you already have, eat foods that contain prebiotics — starches that help keep good microbes alive. These include things like:
- beans and legumes
- whole grains
- starchy vegetables and tubers (such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro/cassava, yuca, etc.)
Experiment to find which foods work for you, as some types of fermentable carbohydrates may bother you (see Message 3 below).
To add to your GI tract’s microbiome, consider eating more foods that contain probiotics (another word for good bacteria). These include yogurt or kefir, mold-enhanced cheese, and fermented products like sauerkraut, pickles, and kimchi.
You can increase or support the diversity of your gut’s microbiome by eating a wide variety of fresh, whole, minimally processed foods, which naturally contain more bacteria than processed foods. Organic foods may provide even more diversity since they haven’t been treated with bacteria-killing pesticides.
Also consider eating an occasional garden-picked fruit or veggie without washing it (assuming nothing’s been using your garden as a litter box).
Finally, avoid overusing antibiotics, which kill all the bacteria in your system, not just the bad stuff. (But when you need a round of the meds, by all means — take them!).
Message #3. Your diet isn’t working for you.
No surprise — your poo is a reflection of what you eat. If you have problem poo, then your diet could be compromising your GI function in a few ways.
Poo types 1 and 2 signal constipation, which may mean that you aren’t getting enough fiber.
We need fiber for proper GI function and healthy poo because:
- Fiber helps feed gut bacteria and move food through the gut.
- Fiber binds to fats, and helps excrete some types of hormones (such as estrogens).
- Fiber ferments in the large intestine, creating short chain fatty acids, an important source of fuel for the body.
- Fiber adds bulk and improves regularity, reducing our exposure to potentially dangerous compounds.
- Finally, the breakdown of fiber regulates pH balance, promoting the optimal environment for beneficial bacteria.
Some people are more sensitive to certain foods that others. If you have a food sensitivity, you might experience symptoms ranging from constipation to urgent bathroom visits.
No two people are exactly alike. What works for one person may not work for another. (Maybe you’ve heard lentils are a superfood, but if they send your tummy into a tsunami, they’re probably not good for you.)
Four common offenders include:
- lectins (found in seeds, grains, legumes and nuts);
- gluten and related proteins (found in grains);
- casein, lactose and immunoglobulins in dairy; and
- fructose (aka fruit sugars) along with other types of sugars and starches (such as oligosaccharides or sugar alcohols) that many people struggle to digest.
Some people are sensitive to ingredients often found in processed foods, such as added sugars, refined grains, and food preservatives/additives such as MSG.
How to fix it
Try keeping a food diary that tracks what you eat along with any symptoms you notice. Sometimes, food sensitivities don’t show up right away; they might take a few hours or even a day or two.
So, recording what you eat and how you feel for a week or two can show you patterns that you might otherwise miss.
If you’re eating foods that don’t agree with you, or if you are missing key nutrients, your bowel movements (or lack thereof) will reflect that.
Eat more whole, fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Notice which ones digest best for you, and keep those on the menu.
Cut down on processed food when possible.
If you suspect you might have a food sensitivity, talk to your doctor or nutrition coach about an elimination diet.
Message #4. You’re dehydrated.
If your poo is small and hard, you may assume you need more fiber — but it may actually mean you‘re not getting enough water.
Why you should care
Water helps move waste through and keep gut flora healthy. If you’re not getting enough water, these two things won’t happen effectively.
If the gut needs water and isn’t getting it, it’ll pull that water from elsewhere to get the job done, which can compromise other systems. For instance, you might get muscle cramping or a dry mouth.
How to fix it
Drink more water, especially during and after workouts.
Look at your overall beverage consumption. How much of that is juice, soda, caffeinated drinks, and/or alcohol? Could you substitute water for those things instead, or at least alternate glasses of water with each beer or coffee?
Message #5. You’re too stressed
Remember, your GI tract is connected to your central nervous system. Your upstairs brain and your “gut brain” talk to each other.
When you’re stressed (or afraid, or anxious, or rushed, or overwhelmed), your brain and gut know, and your digestion slows down.
Ever had the experience of not being able to eat when you’re feeling especially anxious? That’s because blood flow and enzyme production in the gut are limited during stress.
Your GI tract may slow down so that your body can focus on dealing with what it sees as a threat, so you may find yourself constipated, bloated, and dealing with indigestion.
Or your body may follow an “everyone out of the pool” policy, and things may run right through you.
Bottom line: If you’re constipated or frequently rushing to the toilet, your stress levels may be past the area of “good stress” and into unhealthy territory.
Why you should care
If your poo is telling you you’re too stressed, you might also be dealing with:
- grief, loss, sadness
- trouble focusing
- sleep problems
- low sex drive, poor fertility, and/or a disrupted menstrual cycle (if you’re female)
How to fix it
Take stress seriously. Think about how to take care of you. (You’re worth it, after all.)
Make de-stressing a regular part of your routine.
Try stuff like:
- getting outside for a walk… or just outside in general;
- getting some sun and fresh air;
- listening to relaxing music;
- meditating and other mindfulness practices;
- getting a massage;
- taking a hot bath;
- taking a few really good deep breaths;
- snuggling a loved one or pet;
- yoga, gentle mobility, and/or slow stretching exercises;
- gentle swimming or water immersion (such as a hot tub);
- relaxing in a sauna;
- having sex (see? who says nutrition coaching is boring?);
- physically playing (yes, playing… remember that?).
Message #6. Your workout routine isn’t working for you
If you’re not moving your body enough — or working out too intensely — your poo may suffer.
Physical activity keeps systems both outside and inside the body in shape.
On the one hand, a sedentary lifestyle can lead to constipation (use it or lose it, as they say — and it goes for your bowels, too).
On the other hand, overtraining can cause major stress on the body, leading to a too-stressed state and loose or watery stool (see above).
So you’re looking for the right balance of movement and recovery.
Why you should care
Sedentary living has plenty of problems aside from causing us to put on extra fat, or lose bone and muscle mass. It can also make us constipated. Being constipated is no fun.
Conversely, over-exercise can also damage your gut.
At rest, the gut receives over half of all organ blood flow, but during exercise, blood flow to the gut can drop to less than 20 percent of this resting value. Lack of blood flow to the gut during digestion can lead to increased intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut).
Many endurance athletes in particular also report the “runner’s trots”, aka sudden bouts of diarrhea while exercising.
Ironically, both endurance exercisers and people with heart failure are susceptible to leaky gut syndrome. In each case (though for entirely different reasons), not enough blood is making it to the gut.
How to fix it
Find ways to move your body that you truly enjoy, so “exercise” doesn’t feel like a slog. Walking the dog? Dance party with the kids? Yoga? Cleaning out the attic? Everyone has their thing. You do you.
(Krista’s 90-year-old grandma, a diligent daily walker all her life, insists, “A good walk cleans you out!”)
If you suspect you’re overtraining, keep a journal for a couple weeks. For instance:
- Are you noticing other overtraining symptoms, like muscle aches or fatigue?
- How do you feel during and in between workouts when you moderate?
- How does it feel to get some active recovery time, like an easy swim or playing on the playground with your nephews?
Once you find your ideal balance, your poo should improve.
What to do next: Some tips from Precision Nutrition.
If you think your poo (and your habits) could use a makeover, here are some simple things to try.
Turn around and look down.
To make the best use of your poo as a health-assessment tool, get it the habit of checking its quality on a daily basis.
If you’re new to this practice, start with a simple test using hydration, probably the easiest variable to manipulate:
- At the next opportunity, make a note of the quality of your poo.
- For the next seven days, increase your daily water intake while making no other changes to your intake.
- Document your poo for each of these seven days. How did it change?
The same process can be used to fine-tune other aspects of your lifestyle, such as whole-food consumption and exercise, which may take a bit longer to cause changes in your poo.
The key idea here: Consistency.
To close the loop on your poop, it’s crucial to assess poo regularly and closely adhere to any adjustments you make in an effort to improve the quality.
Consider using a bowel movement tracking app to make regular assessments easier.
Take steps to keep your bacteria balanced.
The ratio of various bacteria that make up your microbiome can be kept well by certain healthy habits.
Follow basic food hygiene.
Wash your hands often, wash produce, keep your kitchen clean.
But don’t go scorched-earth. Regular, non-antibacterial soap and water are usually fine.
Eat a wide variety of produce.
Diversity in your diet means diversity in your nutrient intake and microbiome, so cast a wide net.
Try adding cultured and fermented foods to your diet.
This may include foods like:
- fermented dairy such as yogurt, kefir, quark and skyr
- fermented non-dairy such as almond or coconut milk yogurt
- kimchi and other Korean-style pickled vegetables (which are traditionally fermented rather than brined)
- traditionally made miso, tempeh, and tofu, if you can find it
You may also consider a probiotic supplement. In North America, look for brands with the Good Manufacturing Process (GMP) sticker.
Take your time to taste your food and notice how it makes you feel.
Slowing down will help your GI tract do its job (it hates to be rushed). It’ll help you eat the right amount for your body.
Paying attention to how your food makes you feel can tip you off to any food intolerances.
All of these help you maintain a healthy weight, healthy gut function, and healthy poo.
Talk to your doctor or nutrition coach about an elimination diet if you’re concerned about a food sensitivity, allergy, or intolerance.
We need water to move things through our GI tract.
Drink up — especially on hot days and when you’re active.
Manage your stress
Too much stress can harm your health.
If stress or anxiety are either plugging you up or opening the sluice gates, try some stress management techniques and improve the quality of your sleep.
Give yourself time to go to the bathroom. Respect your body’s needs; if you have to evacuate your colon, do it.
Grow a garden and/or hang out at a farm.
If you live in a city, try joining a community garden project. If you can, drop by a farm occasionally — buy some fresh foods, get a little soil under your fingernails.
Being exposed to beneficial soil bacteria (such as Mycobacterium vaccae, which may even act as an antidepressant and immune system booster) can help diversify your microbiome.
As a plus, a little fresh air and time amongst plants can help decrease stress.
Know when to go to the doc.
If you notice red in your stool that isn’t from red gummi bears or beets, talk to your doctor.
While the presence of blood (which can be red or black) can be relatively benign (such as hemorrhoids), it can also be serious (such as colon cancer).
One look at your poo is not a complete health assessment. That said, it can tip you off about possible health concerns, where early detection matters.
Don’t try to diagnose on your own: if something strange is going on with your poo, talk to your doctor.
If you’re curious, get your microbiome tested.
Thanks to modern science, you can now learn more about your own unique microbiome. Through programs like uBiome you can get your microbiome tested through an online kit.
Bear in mind that there isn’t an industry standard in place yet. We still don’t know what the “best” balance of microbiota is. However, a test can tell you the basics, such as how diverse your internal ecosystem is.
Finally, if you think you need some extra support — whether it’s diet, stress management, or movement — remember that your friends at Precision Nutrition are always here to help.
We care about you… and your poo!