What Your Stool Says About Your Health
First Published October 2018 / Updated April 2021
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 an important one you should take seriously. Your bowel movements provide important insight into your health. See what they're trying to tell you.
An Indicator of Health
Bowel movements come in all shapes and sizes. Certain characteristics of your stool can tell you a lot about your health and give you a heads up about any potential issues.
- Frequency: People with a healthy digestive system pass a bowel movement between three times a day and three times a week. Constipation, or when you have trouble having a bowel movement at least three times a week, could mean you have a poor diet or do not drink enough fluids. It could also be a result of irritable bowel syndrome or stress.
- Shape and texture: Your stool should look similar to a snake or candy bar — soft and smooth — and should pass in a single piece or few smaller pieces. When you’re constipated, your stool usually comes out in small pellets. It may be log-shaped, lumpy or dry. On the flip side, the watery stool that comes with diarrhea can be caused by many things, including viruses, medications and other digestive disorders. Try getting more probiotics in your diet to restore your good gut bacteria by eating a cup of yogurt or drinking a bottle of kombucha.
- Color: Healthy stool has a medium to dark brown pigment. Yellow stool could mean you have an illness affecting your intestinal lining or a disorder affecting your pancreas, liver or gallbladder. Chalky-white stool could mean there is not enough bile in your stool. This could be a result of an issue in these same three organs. Red and bloody stool could mean you have digestive tract inflammation, hemorrhoids, a polyp, colitis (inflammation of your colon), diverticulitis (small, inflamed pouches in your colon), change in a blood vessel in your colon or colon cancer.
- Smell: It is normal for your stool to have a strong and unpleasant odor. However, a very strange or foul odor may happen as a result of an infection, certain medications or having food stuck in your colon for too long before a bowel movement.
- Pain: Passing a bowel movement should be painless. You should not have much straining, if any. A painful bowel movement can happen for many reasons, including constipation, diarrhea and hemorrhoids.
Look for Changes
Although stool characteristics are specific to each person, any noticeable change should be addressed. Ask your physician if you think your stool is not normal. If you have severe abdominal pain, fever or bloody stools, you should quickly seek medical attention.
Avoid At-Home Tests
At-home tests available for purchase from many online retailers may help identify infection, poor nutrient absorption and gut bacteria. However, their usefulness is limited, according to Emanuelle A. 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.
Ask Your Physician
If you want a detailed look into your health or have concerns about your bowel movements, it’s best to start with your physician.
“If someone has chronic gastrointestinal issues, such as 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, MD, medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Digestive Health Center. These symptoms may require additional investigation by an examination or colonoscopy to determine next steps and the best course of treatment.