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Unless you're a toddler in the throes of potty training, we're going to guess you don't spend much time talking about your bowel movements. Or even acknowledge that they happen. But here's why you might want to give your #2 a glance before you flush: It’s actually one of the best clues you have to your health. "Your bowel movements are the only real marker you have about what your G.I health is like," says gastroenterologist Anish Sheth, MD, author of What’s Your Poo Telling You?
Getting familiar with what’s normal for you can also make it easier to spot issues earlier—when they’re easier to treat. However, "don’t go overboard with day-to-day changes," Sheth says. "Rather, look for consistent changes." That’s because depending on what you’ve been eating, you may notice temporary abnormalities that only last a day or two. But if you notice a change that lasts a week or more, and you're unable to trace it to any recent diet change, make an appointment with your doctor. Discussing your bowel movements may not be your idea of a great time, but it just might save your life.
Check out these seven things your poop could be saying about your health.
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It May Mean: You’re constipated—but you probably already knew that. "However, some people assume that if they go to the bathroom every day then they’re not constipated, but if your stool is consistently hard and comes out in pieces rather than a soft, single piece that passes without much effort, you may be constipated," Sheth says. The most common culprit is inadequate fiber intake. The average U.S. adult only downs about 15 grams of fiber a day—a fraction of the recommended 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. Read labels and keep a food journal for a week to track how much fiber you’re actually taking in. If you’re falling short, bulk up your diet with additional fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. (Check out these 23 high-fiber winners of our Cleanest Packaged Food Awards.)
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It May Mean: Something in your G.I. tract is bleeding. "Most of the time blood in the stool is due to something as benign as hemorrhoids," Sheth says. Since it could also be due to an ulcer in the stomach or colon cancer, it’s crucial to alert your doctor any time you notice blood in the toilet bowl. Certain over-the-counter medications, such as Pepto-Bismol, can turn your stool black. It occurs when sulfur in your digestive tract combines with bismuth, the drug’s active ingredient, and forms bismuth sulfide, a black-colored substance. The discoloration is temporary and harmless and may linger several days after you stop popping Pepto.
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It May Mean: You have celiac disease. Although it only affects about 1% of the population, it’s estimated that 83% of Americans who have celiac disease don’t know they have it, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Signs in your stool may be one of the major—and possibly the only—indications you have it. With celiac disease, your body is unable to tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley. Eating gluten destroys villi (the tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining your small intestines) and you’re unable to absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. This contributes to the loose stools you could experience several times a day. Talk to your doctor about whether you should be screened for celiac disease. Switching to a gluten-free diet can aid absorption, firm up your stools, and address any other related symptoms such as fatigue, pain, bloating, depression, or rashes.
Search through more than 6,000 gluten-free recipes with our handy Recipe Finder.
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It May Mean: You have excess gas in your digestive tract. "If you’ve been eating lots of beans, sprouts, cabbage, or very large meals, it’s perfectly normal for stool to float because of gas, and it’s not a cause for concern," Sheth says. However, if floaters become more common for you or you spot an oil-slick appearance, it could mean something is preventing your body’s ability to absorb fats from food. For instance, inflammation or an infection in your pancreas could prevent you from producing enough digestive enzymes. A food allergy or infection could be damaging the lining of your intestines that’s affecting absorption, too. Ask your doctor for a stool sample test to see if there’s fat that shouldn’t be there. Sheth says additional workups may be necessary to get to the bottom of the problem.
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It May Mean: You could have giardia. The parasite tends to hang out in fresh water, so if you went swimming in a lake, have gone camping, or drank unpurified water recently, you may have picked up the bug along the way. The issue isn’t always as obvious as you may think. You could have diarrhea for weeks or even months, but otherwise feel fine. Your doctor can run a stool sample test to diagnose it, and certain antibiotics can treat it.
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It May Mean: You're constipated, or be an indication of rectal cancer. "If you notice pencil-thin stool for a day or two, it’s probably not an issue," Sheth says. "It may occur if you’re constipated and straining a lot, which prevents the muscles in the anal sphincter from opening and can narrow the way stool comes out." Adding more fiber to your diet can help. But if the issue is ongoing, it could indicate rectal cancer. "With rectal cancer, the tumor is fixed and rigid and encircles the rectum so there’s less space for stool to squeeze through so it appears very thin and stringy," Sheth adds. Make an appointment with your doctor. A colonoscopy can evaluate what’s going on.
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It May Mean: You have a Clostridium difficile (C. diff) infection. "It’s becoming more common and usually occurs after a course of antibiotics," Sheth says. C. diff is a normal part of the flora in your digestive tract, but taking antibiotics can kill off the good bacteria that normally keeps C. diff in check. As a result, the bacteria may proliferate uncontrollably and cause serious stomach issues that can lead to dehydration, hospitalization, and in extreme instances may even be deadly. Call your doctor immediately. If you’re still taking a course of antibiotics, find out if you should stop.
This article was originally published on Prevention.