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Healthy Tips

The Scoop On Your Poop

At-Home Tests and More

There’s lots of information available about what should go into your body, but not many people talk about what comes out. It’s not the most glamorous topic, but it is an important one. Your poop provides some insight into your health. See what it’s trying to tell you.

What Your Stool Says About Your Health

Bowel movements come in all shapes and sizes. A “normal” stool should have a brown pigment and look similar to a snake or candy bar — soft and smooth. Since each individual’s stool is as unique as they are, the key is to look for any changes in frequency and consistency. Constipation, or when you have trouble having a bowel movement, could indicate a poor diet, inadequate fluid intake, irritable bowel syndrome and stress. When you’re constipated, your stool tends to come out in small pellets, or may be log-shaped and lumpy.

Watery consistency associated with diarrhea can be caused by a number of things, including viruses, medications and other digestive disorders. Try increasing your probiotic intake by picking up a cup of yogurt or a bottle of kombucha to replenish your good gut bacteria.

An unusual hue might also tell you something. A yellow stool can indicate a condition disrupting the intestinal lining or disorders impacting the pancreasliver or gallbladder. A chalky-white stool could indicate a lack of bile in your stool, which could be a result of an issue in these same three organs. Blood, on the other hand, could indicate inflammation, hemorrhoids, a polyp, an altered blood vessel or cancer.

Consult your physician if symptoms persist, or if you experience severe abdominal pain, fever or bloody stools.

What Is Home Testing?

If you’re looking for an even more detailed look into your health, at-home kits are available to study your gut microbiomes. Available for purchase through a variety of online retailers, these tests may help diagnose infection or poor nutrition absorption, and can identify your gut bacteria.

However, as fascinating as it sounds, there are still some limitations when it comes to these types of at-home tests, according to Emanuelle Bellaguarda, MD, a gastroenterologist at Northwestern Medicine Digestive Health Center. “Despite increased public interest in using commercially available tests to learn more about the gut microbiome, the clinical utility of these tests is still debatable, and they are not routinely recommended in clinical practice,” she says.

In recent years, at-home tests (fecal immunochemical tests, or FIT) have also become available to test for colon cancer by detecting trace amounts of blood in stool samples. You collect your sample in the comfort and convenience of your own home, and mail it to the laboratory. Results are generally available in as little as two weeks. However, a number of conditions can cause blood in your stool beyond colon cancer, including colitis, diverticulitis, hemorrhoids and anal fissures, so these particular tests should not be taken as a diagnosis. If your sample tests positive for blood, follow up with your physician.

Consult a Physician

“If someone has chronic gastrointestinal issues like blood in their stool or severe abdominal pain, choosing an at-home test over seeing a physician could potentially be very dangerous,” says Stephen B. Hanauer, medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Digestive Health Center. These symptoms may require additional testing, like a colonoscopy.

Bottom line: It’s best to start with your physician if you have concerns about your poop. If you do take an at-home test, your physician may recommend follow-up steps such as an examination or colonoscopy to determine next steps and the best course of treatment.