The Bowel Truth
Stools Can Reveal A Lot About Your Health

From your stool you may be able to get clues about your diet, your gastrointestinal health, and even whether your stress, anger, or anxiety levels are too high.

HOW FOOD BECOMES STOOL

From the moment food enters your mouth, your body embarks on a campaign to turn it into a soupy mush called chyme. Chewing, saliva, peristalsis (the involuntary contractions of gastrointestinal muscles), bacteria, hydrochloric acid, digestive enzymes, bile, and other secretions all work to give each meal the consistency of split pea soup. While your digestive cells are absorbing sugars, starches, fats, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, waste products continue traveling down the line. In the colon, all the leftovers are combined, packed together, and partially dehydrated. What remains - our feces - consist of water, indigestible fiber, undigested food (such as corn and small seeds), sloughed-off dead cells, living and dead bacteria, intestinal secretions, and bile. (The worn-out red blood cells in bile give excrement its distinctive brown color.)

If all goes as it should, you'll end up with a healthy bowel movement. Although digestive idiosyncrasies, variations in intestinal bacteria, and other variables can produce different standards for a healthy stool, in general it should be brown to light brown; formed but not hard; cylindrical, not flattened; fairly bulky and full-bodied, not compacted; somewhat textured but not too messy; and very easy to pass. And it shouldn't smell - much. You're passing methane and bacterial, degraded foodstuffs, so there's always going to be an odor, but it shouldn't be a very strong, pungent odor.

Experts disagree on two other stool characteristics:

The number of pieces and their buoyancy.

WHOLE OR PIECES?

a) Each bowel movement preferably should be in one piece, about the shape and size of a banana and tapered at the end.

b) Stools don't have to be well-formed logs. They can disperse in the toilet water; they can break down.

FLOATING versus SINKING?

Opinion a) Stools should float because buoyancy is a sign that the body has absorbed the minerals in the food and that these nutrients are not contained in the waste.

Opinion b) Stools should sink because of their bulk and fiber content.

Loftiness is not impressed with either argument: most stools will sink. Whether it floats or sinks really doesn't seem to make any difference.

An occasional deviation from this total picture is usually considered okay; chronic deviations (or any featuring blood) are not, and should be checked with a doctor.

If Your Stool Looks BLACK, TARRY, AND STICKY It Could Mean:

Bleeding in your upper digestive tract. The black color comes from digested blood cells.

If Your Stool Looks VERY DARK BROWN It Could Mean:

You drank red wine last night or have too much salt or not enough vegetables in your diet.

If Your Stool Looks GLOWING RED OR MAGENTA It Could Mean:

You've eaten a lot of reddish foods such as beets.

If Your Stool Looks LIGHT GREEN It Could Mean:

You're consuming too much sugar, or too many fruits and vegetables with not enough grains or salt.

If Your Stool Looks PALE OR CLAY-COLORED It Could Mean:

Minimal amounts of bile are being excreted, perhaps because of problems with the gallbladder or liver.

If Your Stool Looks BLOODY OR MUCUS-COVERED It Could Mean:

Hemorrhoids, an overgrowth of certain bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract, colitis (inflammation of the colon), Crohn's disease (also known as inflammatory bowel disease), or colon cancer. Red blood usually means the ailment is located near the end of your digestive tract, whereas black blood signals partially digested blood coming from an ailment higher up the tract. Seek medical advice promptly.

If Your Stool Looks PENCIL-THIN AND RIBBONLIKE It Could Mean:

A polyp or growth in your colon that narrows the passage for stool. Or spastic colon. It can also be from a prolapse at either side of the transverse colon constricting the colon and lack of fiber.

If Your Stool Looks LARGE AND FLOATING, WITH GREASY FILM ON TOILET WATER It Could Mean:

Malabsorption -- your digestive system isn't getting full nutritional use of food.

If Your Stool Looks LOOSE AND WATERY, SOMETIMES DIARRHEA WITH UNDIGESTED FOODSTUFFS It Could Mean:

Possible causes are food poisoning, lactose intolerance, antibiotics, antacids, dietary intolerance, dietary changes, travel, anxiety, stress, inflammatory bowel disease, or irritable bowel syndrome.

If Your Stool Looks SMALL, HARD, ROUND PELLETS It Could Mean:

Constipation - even if you're defecating frequently. Possible causes are eating too much dry food, including protein, and not enough vegetables and raw foods; laxative abuse; worries; or irritable bowel syndrome.

If Your Stool (Has) ALTERNATING BOUTS OF DIARRHEA & CONSTIPATION It Could Mean:

Irritable bowel syndrome. This chronic condition can be aggravated by red meat, spices, sugar, alcohol, lack of fiber, allergy-causing foods, irregular hours, and chaotic relationships.

If Your Stool (Is) REALLY BAD SMELLING It Could Mean:

An imbalance of intestinal bacteria or eating too much animal protein, which can putrefy in your digestive tract.

If your stool-watching isn't winning any awards, you might want to try a cleanse before joining the ISWA (International Stool-Watchers Association :-)

This content is from the Natural Health magazine along with added information from Georgiana Duncan and Enid M. Gilham.