What Can Your Bowel Movements Tell You About Your GI Health?

Most of us flush as quickly as possible, and don’t give it much thought. But changes in your bowel movements – in the frequency, texture, color, or smell – is often the first sign of an issue with your gastrointestinal health. By getting to know your own normal, you will know when things are just a little off and when you may need to see a doctor.

It Shouldn’t be a Pain, or a Strain

Everyone experiences constipation occasionally. It’s nothing to worry about unless it continues for more than a day or two or happens more often than a few times a year. If you consistently experience painful, hard stool or strain to go, you may want to talk to a doctor about it.

You do not want to sit on the toilet straining to pass hard stool for too long. This can cause hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and other issues.

Constipation is not unusual, so don’t be afraid to mention chronic hard stools to your doctor. They can offer some tips to help you go, or even prescribe stool softening medication. In most cases, upping your fluid intake and getting enough fiber can help keep things moving smoothly. On average, adults in the United States tend to get about half of the fiber they are supposed to each day.

Stick to Your Own Routine

How often you go can vary widely based on your own body and how it functions. Some people go twice a day and others go only twice a week. Both are normal. The important thing is that you know your own routine and note any significant changes.

Occasional changes in frequency or slight differences in color or texture are usually nothing to worry about. This most often occurs because you ate something out of the ordinary or it simply didn’t sit well with your stomach.

Report changes that last more than a few days or do not improve to your doctor. This could be a sign of a more serious health concern.

(The) Consistency is Key

You don’t have to memorize the Bristol Stool Scale to be able to learn a lot about your gastrointestinal health by looking at the consistency of your bowel movements. While this medical classification of the texture and consistency of feces is helpful to describe your bowel movements, it’s much easier to learn what your normal looks like and know when something is not quite right.

If your stool is too hard, you probably need to up your fiber and water intake. If your stool is too soft, fiber can help as well. You’ll want to eat plenty of vegetables and whole grains to bulk up your feces. If problems continue, contact your doctor.

Changes in the shape and consistency of your bowel movements could indicate a variety of gastrointestinal issues, including:

  •         Irritable bowel syndrome
  •         Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  •         Bowel obstructions
  •         Diverticulitis
  •         Stomach, colon, or rectal cancer

If your bowel movements suddenly begin to come out pencil-thin, it could be a sign of an obstruction or even a tumor. Report any major changes to your doctor, who may want to refer you to a specialist for further evaluation. A colonoscopy or other tests can usually identify the issue and rule out the most serious causes.

Don’t Forget to Check the Color

Almost anything you eat can change the color of your stool. From leafy greens and red fruits to artificially colored foods to medicines can make for some interesting colors in the toilet bowl.

For example, Kaopectate can turn your bowel movements pale or even white, but it could be a more serious issue if you haven’t taken the medication. Other over-the-counter medications, most notably Pepto-Bismol, can turn your stool black. If you haven’t taken this medication or a handful of antacids, though, see a doctor.

Black stool could stem from blood in the stomach or intestines,and may indicate an ulcer, pre-cancerous colon polyps, or an inflammatory bowel disease. In general, bright red blood on the stool or toilet paper comes from an issue around the anus such as hemorrhoids or anal fissures. The bleeding could also be from the lower intestinal tract, caused by diverticulosis or another more serious issue. A colon and rectal specialist can conduct tests and diagnose the problem.

See Your Doctor If There Are Significant Changes

The biggest influence on the size, texture, shape, and frequency of your bowel movements is your diet. Eating a well-rounded, high-fiber diet with plenty of fluids is the best thing you can do for your digestive health. However, other things can also play a role. Getting enough exercise and sleep, managing hormonal fluctuations, and understanding the potential side effects of your medication are all important.

Temporary changes or abnormalities in your bowel movements are normal. If they only last a day or two, you can probably chalk it up to something you ate or another lifestyle factor. But if a change in your habits lasts for longer – up to a week or more – you need to see a doctor to get to the bottom of what’s going on.