What You Need to Know About Your Bowel Movements

The scoop on poop


| July-August 1999



Let's face it: Digestion happens. Few of us, however, can talk about the end result without embarrassment. It's too bad; our stools, which yield clues about diet, gastrointestinal health, and stress, anger, and anxiety levels, may be as useful a diagnostic tool as our temperature or blood pressure. “People can tell a measure of their health by their bowel movements,” says Dr. Ted Loftness, an internist in Litchfield, Minnesota. “Nothing is so overrated as sex and so underrated as a good bowel movement.”

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 (involuntary contractions of gastrointestinal muscles), bacteria, hydrochloric acid, digestive enzymes, bile, and other secretions work to give each meal the consistency of split pea soup. While your digestive cells absorb sugars, starches, fats, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, waste products travel down the line. In the colon, the leftovers are combined, packed together, and partially dehydrated. What remains—our feces—consists of water, indigestible fiber, undigested food (corn, small seeds), sloughed-off dead cells, living and dead bacteria, intestinal secretions, and bile. (Worn-out red blood cells in bile give excrement its distinctive color.)

If all goes well, you'll have a healthy bowel movement. Although digestive idiosyncrasies, variations in intestinal bacteria, and other variables can produce different standards for a healthy stool, it generally 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,” says Patrick Donovan, a Seattle naturopath. “But it shouldn't be a strong, pungent odor.”

Experts disagree on two other characteristics: number of pieces and buoyancy. Each bowel movement should be in one piece, about the shape and size of a banana and tapered at the end, according to Melanie Ferreira, a nutritionist and instructor at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Health in New York City. Donovan disagrees: “Stools don't have to be well-formed logs. They can disperse in the toilet water; they can break down.”

Some experts argue that stools should float; Ferreira says buoyancy is a sign that the body has absorbed the minerals in the food. Others believe healthy bowel movements should touch bottom because of their bulk and fiber content. “Most stools will sink,” says Loftness, who doesn't buy either argument. “Whether it floats or sinks really doesn't seem to make any difference.”

One of the most common gastrointestinal complaints is hard feces and infrequent, difficult elimination—better known as constipation. Chronic constipation may contribute to autoimmune diseases and colon or breast cancer. “The longer stool stays in the colon, the more one reabsorbs the metabolic products [such as estrogen] that have been excreted in the bile,” says Donovan, who treats people with cancer in his naturopathic clinic. “We can see increased risk of breast cancer in women with a history of constipation.”