Everybody poops. We’ve been taught this since childhood, but sometimes, people aren’t comfortable talking about it. Poop may not be a topic fit for dinner table conversation, but it’s a completely normal — and essential — bodily function. Plus, it can tell you a lot about your health.
A bowel movement is the last stop your food makes as it goes through your digestive tract. Sometimes called stool or feces, your poop is what’s left of your food and drink after your body absorbs important nutrients.
What and how you eat affects your digestive system, and sometimes, your bowel movements can change simply because of changes in your diet. Other times, changes in bowel movements signify something more serious. What’s “normal” depends on each individual person — but there are some signs you can look for that mean something may be off.
Here are some other ways your poop may be able to tell you about your health.
What Does It Mean When Your Poop Changes Color?
Think of the poop emoji. Your poop should be that color — brown.
“Sometimes, the color of your poop can reflect what you eat. For example, eating a lot of green, leafy vegetables can turn your poop green. Also, food coloring can change the color of your poop. In these cases, it’s OK if your poop isn’t quite so brown,” explained Nitin Ahuja, MD, MS, physician at Penn Gastroenterology Perelman.
Other times, there may be something else going on that’s causing your poop to change color.
If your poop is light-colored, yellow, clay-colored, or very light brown, this may be a sign of:
- An infection or inflammation (swelling) in your gallbladder, liver, or pancreas
- Alcoholic hepatitis, which is inflammation in your liver caused by alcohol consumption
- A blockage in the bile ducts, the part of your digestive system responsible for moving a fluid called bile from your liver and gallbladder to your small intestine. Such blockages may be caused by gallstones or narrowing of the ducts themselves.
“Your poop can become black if you eat foods such as black licorice and blueberries or if you’re taking iron supplements. However, it can also be an indicator of bleeding or tumors in your digestive tract,” warned Dr. Ahuja.
Blood in your stool can cause your poop to appear red. A tiny bit of bleeding can be a result of constipation, or if you’re a woman having her period, but it can also be a sign of:
- Bleeding in the rectum or anus
- Abnormal blood vessels
- Blood supply being cut off to parts of your digestive system
- Swelling in the lining of your stomach
- Food or a foreign object being stuck in your digestive system
- Cancer of parts of your digestive system
Your primary care provider can determine if there are any problems with your digestive system by performing a physical exam and lab or imagining tests.
What Does it Mean if You’re Pooping Too Often or Not Enough?
Dr. Ahuja explained, “There isn’t a set amount of times you should poop — it’s different for everyone, and some people may poop every day, while others may poop every other day. The important thing is staying regular. If your pooping habits seem to suddenly become more or less frequent, that can be a cause for concern.”
If your poop is loose and watery and you have to go more than three times in one day, that’s diarrhea. Not only can it be inconvenient, it can mean that your body is trying to get rid of something in your digestive system.
Some causes of diarrhea are:
- Bacteria or parasites (tiny organisms) from contaminated food or water
- Viruses such as the flu, norovirus, or rotavirus
- Medications with magnesium, such as antibiotics or antacids
- Food intolerances, which are when your body has a hard time digesting certain ingredients. One common food intolerance is lactose intolerance — when your body has difficulty processing a carbohydrate found in dairy products.
- Diseases of your stomach, small intestine, or colon, such as Crohn’s disease
- Problems with your colon, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
“Diarrhea is a common problem, and it usually goes away on its own. If it lasts more than a few days, though, it can be a sign of a more serious problem, and you should see your primary care provider,” said Dr. Ahuja.
Diarrhea in children — especially infants — can be particularly dangerous because they can get dehydrated quickly and become very sick. Every once in a while, diarrhea can be normal, but it’s important to monitor it. You should not hesitate to see your child’s primary care provider right away if you’re concerned.
Poop that’s hard, dry, and/or painful to pass is called constipation. If you only have three or fewer bowel movements per week, constipation could point to issues with your diet.,
Some causes of constipation are:
- A diet low in fiber, which is a nutrient found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- A lack of exercise or physical activity
- Medications such as antidepressants or opioids
“You don’t need to poop every day — but if your bowel habits change or are causing you pain, talk to your primary care provider. Also, use laxatives only if your physician tells you to, as they can further disrupt your digestive system if not used properly,” said Dr. Ahuja.
What About Other Changes in Your Poop?
If your poop never seems to sink in the toilet bowl, that can be a reflection of your diet and certain health conditions. Floating poop can be caused by:
- Poor absorption of nutrients — called malabsorption
- Too much gas, which can occur with a change in your diet
- A gastrointestinal infection
Usually, floating poop isn’t a cause for concern on its own. However, if you have other symptoms, such as significant weight loss, talk to your primary care provider to see what’s going on.
Your poop may not smell like flowers, but the odor of your poop should be familiar. If it’s suddenly extremely bad smelling and has you running for the air freshener each time you go to the bathroom, this can be a sign of a problem. Foul-smelling poop can be caused by:
- Celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Chronic pancreatitis, which is inflammation of your pancreas
- Cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that can affect your lungs, pancreas, liver, kidneys, and intestines
- An intestinal infection, which can be caused by a virus, bacteria, or parasites in your intestine
If you didn’t make any major changes to your diet and your poop suddenly has a strong odor, talk to your primary care provider.
Monitor Your Pooping Habits
Dr. Ahuja concluded by saying that, “The most important thing to remember is to be on the lookout for is any changes in your bowel movements. If your poop is suddenly more or less frequent, or looks significantly different, don’t ignore these changes.” Regularity is a good thing when it comes to poop, and you should make sure to get to your physician’s office if anything seems a bit … stinky.
Do you have questions about your poop and your health? Request an appointment to discuss your bowel movements with a Penn Medicine primary care provider online or by calling 800-789-7366.