By Marguerite Lamb
Baffled by all those initials after doctors' names? Tired of
getting the referral runaround? We'll help clear up the confusion so you can
find the best treatment for your symptoms.
In today's medical marketplace, you're not a patient—you're a
"health-care consumer." That's good news and bad. It means you have
more autonomy and choice than ever—but it also means the ball is in your court
when it comes to figuring out whom to trust with your health. Should...
But asking some important questions about your bowel movements might give you some insight into your gastrointestinal health. Here's the scoop on poop.
ABCs of Poop
Bowel movements are the end result of your body taking the nutrients it needs from the food you eat and eliminating what's left.
“Bowel movements are important for your health because they are the body’s natural way of excreting waste from the body,” says Eric Esrailian, MD, section head in general gastroenterology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
When it comes to frequency, color, shape, and size, a general rule of thumb is that normal bowel movements are defined as what’s comfortable for you. But being knowledgeable about your digestive process can help you identify when normal goes awry.
Frequency: “There is no normal when it comes to frequency of bowel movements, only averages” says Bernard Aserkoff, MD, a doctor in the GI Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
It’s average to go once or twice a day, he says, but many people go more, and some go less -- maybe every other day, and or as infrequently as once or twice a week. As long as you feel comfortable, you don’t need to give your BMs much thought.
Color: “Bowel movements are generally brown in color because of bile, which is produced in the liver and important to the digestion process,” Aserkoff tells WebMD.
The food you eat typically takes three days from the time you eat it until it finishes its journey in your toilet, Aserkoff says. If it takes a shorter time, the result may be greener stool because green is one of the first colors in the rainbow of the digestive process.
Color can be a red flag when it’s a drastic change, Aserkoff says.
“If stool is black, it can mean that you are bleeding internally, possibly as a result of an ulcer or cancer,” he says. Stool that is black due to bleeding is also "sticky" (tarry) and smells bad. However, black stools are common when taking a vitamin that contains iron or medications that contain bismuth subsalicylate.
Stool that is light in color -- like grey clay -- can also mean trouble if it’s a change from what you normally see. Although it doesn’t happen often, very light-colored stool can indicate a block in the flow of bile or liver disease.
Size and shape: “We used to believe that size was indicative of a problem if the stool was ‘pencil-thin,’” Aserkoff says. “But recent research indicates that this is actually not true.”