Call it feces, stool, or all of the above: Poop is a natural part of digestion.
Made predominantly of water, poop is a collection of undigested food (mostly fiber), bacteria, proteins, salts, and substances produced and released by the intestines. While people can have all different shapes (and smells) of poop, there are some common aspects of “normal” poop, which include:
- Color: Stool is usually brown because of the presence of bilirubin. This is a pigment by-product of the breakdown of red blood cells in the body.
- Smell: Poop has an unpleasant, odorous smell due to the presence of bacteria, which can emit strong-smelling gases.
- Frequency: A person may poop anywhere from every other day to three times a day, usually after a meal. Most people tend to poop around the same time every day.
- Consistency: Stool is usually soft to firm in appearance. It gets its shape from the intestines, which have a log-like, irregular appearance. However, some people may have deviations from this shape. This will be covered in the following section.
Sometimes poop has to travel more than 25 feet before it can reach the rectum and be released as stool. Because there’s a lot that can happen in that 25 feet, it’s important that a person take steps to maintain bowel regularity.
As a person ages, they tend to experience more episodes of constipation, or bowel movements that happen less frequently. Less physical activity, slowed movements of the bowels themselves, and taking more medications can all slow down a person’s bowel habits.
In addition to aging, illness and dietary changes can also affect a person’s poop. In this way, a person’s poop can be an indicator of their overall health — especially their dietary and lifestyle habits.
The Bristol Stool Scale is a chart that identifies seven categories of poop. By defining different presentations of poop, a doctor can usually identify the potential underlying cause.
Doctors from England’s Bristol Royal Infirmary developed the scale after a large-scale study on the bowel habits of nearly 2,000 men and women. The chart is as follows:
Appearance: separate, hard lumps
Indicates: severe constipation
Appearance: lumpy and sausage-like
Indicates: mild constipation
Appearance: a sausage shape with cracks in the surface
Appearance: like a smooth, soft sausage or snake
Appearance: soft blobs with clear-cut edges
Indicates: lacking fiber
Appearance: mushy consistency with ragged edges
Indicates: mild diarrhea
Appearance: liquid consistency with no solid pieces
Indicates: severe diarrhea
Using this scale, a person can determine if their stool shape and consistency should be considered “normal.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, poop colors in varying shades of brown are considered normal. Some shades of greenish-brown are also considered to be normal.
Poop usually starts as a greenish color due to the presence of bile salts. Bile salts are yellow-green in color. As the poop continues to travel through the intestines, the color of poop changes to brown as it combines with bilirubin.
Sometimes poop can change color based on a medical condition. Other times it can change color based on foods, drinks, or medications someone has consumed.
Examples of possible color changes in stool can include:
If stool is black and often coffee ground-like in appearance, this could be a sign of potential bleeding in the upper gastrointestinal tract. The blood is older and therefore travels down the intestinal tract. However, substances such as iron supplements, bismuth medications, and black licorice can cause a person’s stool to appear black.
Green-colored stool can indicate a person’s stool is moving very quickly through the digestive tract and has more bile salts than bilirubin. Eating lots of green foods such as spinach or foods that have added green food coloring can also turn stool green.
Pale, white, or clay-colored
Pale-colored stools indicate a lack of bile. This may be due to a problem with the liver or gallbladder, which both secrete bile. However, taking some anti-diarrhea medications and bismuth-containing medications can also cause stool to appear white or pale.
Red stool can be very concerning: It can indicate a possible gastrointestinal bleed. If the amount of blood is small, hemorrhoids could be the cause. If there’s a larger amount of blood, bleeding from a point in the lower intestinal tract could be the source.
However, a person’s stool can turn red based on what they’re eating or drinking. Examples of these foods include beets, cranberries, tomato juice, and red gelatin.
Orange stool is often cause by beta carotene. This compound can be found in many vegetables, fruits, or grains. Foods rich in beta carotene include carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squash.
Yellow, greasy, or foul-smelling
The presence of too much fat in a person’s stool can lead to a yellow or greasy-appearing stool. However, sometimes a person can have a disorder where their body doesn’t absorb nutrients as well. An example is celiac disease.
If a person has an occasional change in stool color, this isn’t usually cause for concern. However, red or black stool, as well as other stool color changes that last for longer than two to three weeks, can also be cause for concern.
As a general rule, a person shouldn’t spend more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time trying to poop. People who have a difficult time going to the bathroom or are chronically constipated may need to make dietary changes to help produce stool that’s easier to pass. A bowel retraining program may also help.
Drinking more water, eating more fiber, and exercising can all help reduce constipation that causes a person to spend more time in the bathroom.
Some changes in poop appearance shouldn’t be ignored. This is especially true for poop that appears bright red or black or looks like coffee grounds. Because both of these indicate potential blood loss, seek emergency medical attention before experiencing a significant loss of blood.
Chronic constipation can be an underlying symptom of a condition such as:
Diarrhea that occurs for longer than a few days can indicate a condition such as:
If you have a color change to your poop that lasts for a week or more that doesn’t have an identifiable underlying cause — such as a greater intake of green vegetables — call your doctor.
The same is true for changes in poop’s consistency. Poop that becomes very thin, like the appearance of a pencil, can especially be cause for concern. It may indicate colon cancer.
Maintaining bowel regularity and consistency is important to allow for proper elimination. Bowel consistency can also indicate that a person has a healthy diet and bowels that move as they should. Chronic constipation can lead to a bowel obstruction. Chronic diarrhea can affect a person’s ability to absorb nutrients.