Poop Health: Everything You Want to Know But Haven't Asked

Poop might not be a popular conversation topic, but it’s something we all have a whole lot of experience with—and it can be an important indicator of overall health.
Poop Health: Everything You Want to Know But Haven't Asked

Going, er, No. 2 might be a rather uncomfortable topic for most of us, but turns out it’s actually pretty interesting. For instance, who knew the skipper caterpillar is just an inch and a half long but can shoot its poop a distance of six feet? Or that a goose defecates an average of once every twelve minutes? In contrast, sloths go only about once a week The Truth About Poop. Goodman, S. Viking Juvenile, First Ed., May 2004.

Poop and poop habits are pretty varied in the non-human animal world, and the same is true for people. Despite being a universal act, this part of “going to the bathroom” is rarely discussed. Greatist wants to change that—so read on for some straight talk about poopin’.

1. How often should I go?

Everybody is different, and there is no set “normal” when it comes to passing stools. That said, the normal range spans three times a day to once every three days, meaning the average person poops approximately once a day—about 1 ounce of stool for each 12 pounds of her or his body weight. That means a person weighing 160 pounds produces an average of just under a pound of poop each day.

Going four-plus times a day or having watery, thin, or loose stools qualifies as diarrhea, a common condition that usually isn’t serious (except in severe cases or in elderly, young, or sick people, whose bodies might not be up to replacing fluids lost through diarrhea) Differential diagnosis for acute diarrhea. Kurai, H. Division of Infectious Diseases, Shizuoka Cancer Center Hospital. Nihon Rinsho, Japanese journal of clinical medicine, 2012 Aug;70(8):1395-9. Acute diarrhea usually results from an infection and goes away pretty quickly; persistent diarrhea lasts two weeks or more; and chronic diarrhea lasts longer than a month. Common causes include infections, medications, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and diet (meaning “It must have been something I ate” really is a legitimate reason some of the time).

If the runs strike, push fluids to prevent dehydration. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and apple and pear juice—they can make diarrhea worse (who knew!). Instead, try to eat solid foods like soda crackers, toast, rice, eggs, and chicken. Over-the-counter meds can also be helpful; ask a pharmacist for help if you’re overwhelmed by the choices. If diarrhea lasts longer than 48 hours or is accompanied by fever or dehydration, consult a physician.

Going less than once every three days qualifies as constipation. Though usually not serious, it can be painful and uncomfortable—partly because after three days, stool gets harder and more difficult to pass. Common causes include inadequate fiber or fluid intake, overuse of caffeine and alcohol, medications, chronic laxative abuse, mental issues (like depression), certain foods, and various diseases. Getting lots of fiber (nuts, whole grains, and fruit are all good sources), exercise, and water can lessen the chances of getting backed up Chronic constipation in adults. How far should evaluation and treatment go? Marshall, JB. Gastroenterology Division, Gastroenterology Division, University of Missouri, Columbia School of Medicine. Postgraduate Medicine, 1990 Sept 1;88(3):49-51, 54, 57-9, 63 Relationship between lifestyle factors and defecation in a Japanese population. Nakaji, S., Tokunaga, S., Sakamoto, J., et al. Department of Hygiene, Hirosaki University School of Medicine, Japan. European Journal of Nutrition, 2002 Dec;41(6):244-8.

2. What should it look like?

First, it’s useful to know what it’s made of. Feces are about 75 percent water. The rest is a combination of dead and living bacteria (which help to break down food in the gut), protein, waste material from food, cellular linings, fats, salts, substances released from the intestines and the liver, and perhaps some insoluble-fiber-rich foods that the body couldn’t digest (read: that ear of corn from yesterday’s cook-out). The result is typically brown in color—mainly the result of bilirubin, a pigment generated by the breakdown of red blood cells.

The “bulk” of the stool is determined by how much water and fiber a person consumes What’s Your Poo Telling You? Richman, J. and Sheth, A. Chronicle Books, 2007. Check out this chart to learn what different shapes can reveal about the health of the gut. It’s normal for poop’s appearance to vary depending on lifestyle factors such as what a person eats in a given day, how hydrated and physically active they are, and even their stress levels Probiotics use to treat irritable bowel syndrome. Hosseini, A., Nikfar, S., Abdollahi, M. Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Razi Institute for Drug Research, Iran. Expert Opinion on Biological Therapy, 2012 Aug 16. Some medical experts say the ideal stool should hold together and take roughly the form of an “S.” (The idea is that the colon and intestines are long and thin, so the ideal stool should adopt a similar shape.) But don’t worry if that poop doesn’t form a perfect “S”—what matters more is that bowel movements pass fairly easily from the body into the toilet.

3. Why does it smell?

Knowing what stool is made of (see question No. 2) explains why it smells: The bacterial activity in feces produces a host of compounds and gases that create those infamous odors. Particularly stinky day? The most likely culprit is something you ate, though extremely foul-smelling stools can also signal certain medical conditions What’s Your Poo Telling You? Richman, J. and Sheth, A. Chronicle Books, 2007. If you’re concerned, consult a medical care provider.

4. What if it hurts?

Discomfort is frequently associated with constipation A comparison of stool characteristics from normal and constipated people. Aichbichler, BW, Wenzl, HH, Santa Ana, CA, et al. Department of Internal Medicine, Baylor University Medical Center, Texas. Digestive Diseases and Sciences, 1998 Nov;43(11):2353-62. But if you regularly experience straining or sharp pains in the rectum or abdomen (or if you ever experience bleeding), consult a physician, as these can be signs of issues like hemorrhoids or anal fissures.

5. Why are we embarrassed to poop, and to talk about poop, in the first place?

Suppressing the need to go can create bowel issues, particularly in women The relation between irregular bowel movement and the lifestyle of working women. Kunimoto, M., Nishi, M., Sasaki, K. Colo-proctological Clinic, Kunimoto Hospital, Japan. Hepato-gastroenterology, 1998 Jul-Aug;45(22):956-60. Yet some of us would still rather hold it in than talk about it.

Some researchers take an existential approach to this phenomenon. It’s called Terror Management Theory and the idea is that natural bodily functions remind us of our “creatureliness,” and therefore our mortality Creatureliness priming reduces aggression and support for war. Motyl, M., Hart, J., Cooper, DP. Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, Virginia. The British Journal of Social Psychology, 2012 Aug 13. But scary as it might be to contemplate life’s fragility, it’s important to come to terms with it so that we notice our bodies’ signals—both on and off the marble throne.

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