While it doesn’t have to dominate the dinner conversation, talking about your bowel movements can help you identify what’s completely normal and when it’s time to see your doctor.
Put simply, poo is taboo. It is so inappropriate to talk to your work colleagues about your movements, and we’re certain your friends and family don’t want to know the inner workings of your bowels, either. But, you can strike a happy medium by being diligent about your own health, knowing what is normal for you and being able to spot changes as soon as you notice them.
A healthy range
There are no hard and fast rules about how frequently you should be visiting the bathroom, or what your stools should look like. The thing with poo is that it’s a different experience for everybody. What’s normal for you, may look like a problem for someone else. “A doctor will always be interested in a change from your normal pattern. Remember, there is a wide variety of ‘normal’ and any variance from your baseline is the first thing we look for,” says GP, Dr Aifric Boylan.
Mid- to dark-brown stools are considered common. A change in colour can mean many different things, so be sure to mention any changes to your doctor.
If it’s red…
“If your stool has a reddish hue, it can indicate bleeding somewhere in the middle of the gut and towards the lower part of the intestine or colon,” says Dr Boylan. But, it's not always cause for concern. “Sometimes you can see a change in your poo colour from eating beetroot or other foods with a strong pigment.”
If it’s black…
“That can indicate that there’s bleeding higher up in the digestive tract,” says Dr Boylan. It can also be a sign of more serious gut health issues such as gastritis, stomach ulcers or even stomach cancer. Again, don’t panic, as taking iron supplements can also turn your poo very dark.
If it’s pale or yellow…
You’ve got a gut health problem worth checking out. “A pale yellow stool can indicate malabsorption and those sort of poos might float more than normal,” advises Dr Boylan. “This can be a sign of things like coeliac disease, where you’re not absorbing your food properly.”
Size (and shape) matters
Since there is such a wide range of ‘normal’, the Bristol Stool scale was developed in the 1990s by scientists to assist in interpreting your movements. This chart outlines the consistency and appearance, from constipation all the way to diarrhoea. You’re welcome.
What can your poo tell you?
“If we’re not paying attention to having a healthy lifestyle as much as we should be, we will see this reflected in our gut health,” says Dr Alena Pribyl, Senior Scientist and Research Officer at gut-health testing company, Microba. Doctors can identify a wide range of conditions just by hearing about our bowel movements. A change in your poo can help identify parasites, bacterial infections, inflammatory conditions like Crohn’s disease or colitis and even food intolerances. “We can detect serious conditions like cancers as well as subtle things like an underactive thyroid,” adds Dr Boylan.
Should I get my poo tested?
Finding out about your microbiome sequence could be the way of the future if you ask Dr Pribyl. “I think in the next five to ten years it’s going to be a regular part of testing at the GP,” she says. Using a sequencing company to look into your stool lets you know the levels of beneficial and harmful bacteria in your system, and how healthy your diet is. “There’s a huge potential here to make ourselves healthier through simple changes we can adopt at home,” says Dr Pribyl. But, if that’s just too much information for you to digest right now, we understand!